Why Rishi Sunak’s UK Conservatives Are Talking About a Canadian Election 30 Years Ago

Why Rishi Sunak’s UK Conservatives Are Talking About a Canadian Election 30 Years Ago

A week of Tory rebellions and cataclysmic polls has left members of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s governing party plumbing new depths of despair over their prospects of staying in power at a general election in the next year.

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(Bloomberg) — A week of Tory rebellions and cataclysmic polls has left members of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s governing party plumbing new depths of despair over their prospects of staying in power at a general election in the next year.

The Conservatives have trailed far behind the opposition Labour Party in polling for more than a year, leading to internal debates about whether they are headed for defeat on the scale of the 1997 landslide, or a comeback on a par with 1992. Foreign Secretary David Cameron this week likened the position to 2015, when he squeaked a majority as prime minister.

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But recent events have some looking at a darker portent from Canada three decades ago. In 1993, the center-right Progressive Conservatives were pincered between the center-left and populist right, suffering the worst ever result by a governing party in the Western world, losing almost all their seats. 

The week began with Sunak’s top campaign strategist, Isaac Levido, ordering Conservative lawmakers attending a closed-door meeting in the House of Commons to stop undermining the prime minister if they want to avoid defeat at the election which Sunak expects to hold in the second half of 2024. Levido’s message was ignored. Within 24 hours, some 60 Tory Members of Parliament had rebelled against Sunak’s flagship migration law. By the end of the week, a few were even talking about writing letters of no confidence in the premier, though it would take 53 such missives to trigger a vote. 

Though Sunak’s immediate position is seen as safe after he won a crunch vote on his efforts to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, the bruised prime minister was further undermined by two YouGov polls. One gave Keir Starmer’s opposition a 27-point lead, while a much bigger survey for the Telegraph that looked at individual constituencies projected Labour winning a 120-seat majority. 

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“The Conservatives have kicked off election year in a perilous state,” said Scarlett Maguire of the pollster JL Partners. “Things look like they are heading in the wrong direction.”

Tory MPs — including even some cabinet ministers in supposedly safe seats — are worried that if Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage returns to lead the anti-migration Reform Party, that sort of nightmare outcome could become a reality, with the Conservatives bleeding votes in all directions, as happened to the Canadian party. 

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All but the staunchest Sunak aides believe there is almost no chance of a Tory victory, multiple government advisers told Bloomberg, requesting anonymity discussing their personal views. One said the chance of an electoral wipeout is under-priced, while another described Farage as a nuclear bomb who could cause a Canada 1993-style result and leave the Tories on double-digit seats — down from 349 now.

The threat from Reform means it “could get even worse for the Conservatives if they continue to fail to deliver in the eyes of the public on the economy, immigration and public services,” Maguire warned.

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Some advisers are planning to quit before the election, while cabinet ministers are finalizing plans for future careers in the corporate world, the Sunak aides said. Dozens more MPs could stand down rather than face the voters, adding to the sense of malaise, one lawmaker predicted.

A minister expressed a concern that the theme of Tory MPs giving up would cut through with the public, leaving voters little reason to vote Conservative. Tory strategists think undecided voters will break to them on polling day, but there is a chance the stench of death surrounding the party sees those votes instead go to Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Reform, the minister said. Pollster Matt Singh from Number Cruncher Politics said if polling model assumptions are wrong about which way undecided voters will break, “the risks would be heavily to the downside for the Tories.”

To be sure, not everyone is so gloomy. Some Tory MPs believe Labour’s poll lead will reduce once voters start paying attention in an election campaign. Levido and other Sunak aides have tried to convince the Tories that if they pull together and run a disciplined campaign focused on an improving economic picture, they can emulate John Major’s surprise victory in 1992. In that election, the Tory leader overcame negative polling after 13 years of party rule to stay in office against the odds. 

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Sunak’s closest aides believe falling inflation combined with tax cuts at the Spring Budget will see the polls close before the election. The Tories plan to trap Labour by using up headroom in the public finances on tax cuts. They hope to force Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves — who spent much of the week in Davos, Switzerland, burnishing Labour’s ties with business — into a U-turn on her fiscal rules and commitments not to raise taxes. Another budget closer to the election could provide an opportunity for that, a government official said.

Nevertheless, some in No. 10 doubt Sunak can afford many more weeks like this one. They said a poor showing at local elections in May could put his premiership in danger again, though they’re skeptical whether rebels have the numbers to trigger a leadership challenge. Most on the Tory right have given up on ousting Sunak before the election, and instead want him to own the defeat, one rebel said. Some are so forlorn about their party that they’re talking about setting up a rival.

The testiness was on show in Levido’s icy address to MPs on Monday. One told the strategist that not only are the Tories losing the war on the air waves, but Labour’s ground campaign was in far better shape — a prospect to send more shivers down Conservative spines.

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Levido’s pleas for unity are being ignored even by those in high office. A No. 10 official expressed irritation after it emerged Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch privately sought a tougher stance on immigration and her parliamentary aide quit in protest at Sunak’s approach. Though an ally of Badenoch insisted she had no hand in her aide’s resignation, the official said she appeared to be on maneuvers for a future leadership contest. 

But if the Tories’ fate really does end up tracking that of Canada’s Progressive Conservatives, any future leadership contest may be moot. That party never recovered from the loss, dissolving a decade later.

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