The art of losing an election

There’s a new standard conversation for Tory MPs at any Westminster drink party: is it 1992 or 1997? Is the party doomed or not? In 1992, John Major was the only Prime Minister to trail 20 points in the polls, winning two years later. But in 1997, with the Tories mired in allegations of defamation, Major lost by such a landslide that his party was out of power for three terms.

There are some Tory MPs who argue that a narrow win would be worse than giving Labor a narrow majority

William Hague was brought in as evening entertainment on last week’s Cabinet Day to promote optimism. The current situation, Hague said, reflected more of the electoral landscape of 1990, when Major continued to turn the tide of the party. If only the Conservative Party could unite behind Rishi Sunak, he continued, they could win.

But Tory MPs, unhappy with the government’s direction and hurt by the exodus of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, are leaning towards the second option. Labor is getting the kind of attention from business and the press that suggests it’s on the verge of power, they say. Shadow Cabinet members Wes Streeting and Jon Ashworth lead the conversation on the NHS and welfare reform as the government talks about ‘technocratic’ solutions.

The growing consensus in Tory circles is that the next election is unlikely to resemble either 1997 or 1992. There’s another scenario that MPs with neither an ax to sharpen nor a reason to promote are increasingly seeing as the more likely option: a dignified defeat. Some Tory MPs are already preparing for that soft landing, with some even arguing that winning a narrow victory would be worse than giving Labor a narrow majority.

Many Conservatives are therefore quietly preparing for opposition, while few accept that they are destined to lose most of their MPs and be out for a generation. They believe the work that needs to be done over the next 18 months may not be enough to win an unprecedented fifth term, but that the party may be able to bounce back sooner rather than later.

What is certain is that Sunak faces more stormy economic weather ahead of the 1992 election than Major. While inflation is expected to have eased by the next election, the post-Black Wednesday boom is nowhere in sight this time. Instead, a recession is forecast. The IMF hinted this week that the UK is the only major country whose economy will contract this year. Disposable income is falling rapidly as wages fail to keep up with inflation and taxes are at an all-time high. “Yes, it hurt,” said one of Major’s posters, “Yes, it worked.” If it doesn’t work, we won’t forget the pain.

But while Keir Starmer is doing better than Neil Kinnock, he’s showing little sign of being the new Blair. “I think the next election could be marked by apathy,” says a senior Labor official. “The voters are turning off. They’re not keen on any major party.” Attending the away day at Checkers, ministers found solace in the presentation by 2019 election strategist Isaac Levido. For all his anger at the Conservatives, polls suggest Starmer is not well liked and few know what he stands for.

Strategists on both sides expect polling to tighten ahead of the election. “It should narrow by at least nine points compared to previous precedents,” says one Labor figure. This notion is echoed in Tory high command. But reducing Labor’s lead from 20 to 10 points would still mean an easy win. “The scale of the defeat is critical,” says a senior Tory politician who has sat in the House of Commons since the early 2000s. “A small loss means we can quickly rebuild and get back in.”

MPs discuss what would be the least bad option in the event of a Tory defeat. “I’d rather have a Labor majority than a hanging Parliament,” says a former cabinet minister. The concern is that if the Liberal Democrats were accepted into a coalition, they would demand a change in the electoral system to introduce proportional representation – and keep the Tories in power for decades.

But there is another reason why some Tory MPs can see the benefits of a narrow Labor victory. “We need a break,” says a minister. The hope is that a small Labor majority would highlight internal tensions within the party – Starmer may struggle to assert authority – and give the Tories a chance to rejuvenate themselves.

The magnitude of the loss would also play an important role in deciding who becomes opposition leader. “If there’s a wipeout, there’s going to be a big push that’s going to push us to the right,” predicts one MP in a Blue Wall seat gloomily. MPs could argue that Sunak’s continued managerism is fatal and that Jacob Rees-Mogg or Suella Braverman is needed. If Labor did end up with a narrow majority then a more centrist candidate like Kemi Badenoch – popular with the grassroots and Gove supporters – would be more likely to prevail.

Defeatism is not universal. Over the weekend, Tory MPs’ WhatsApp group was outraged by an anonymous minister who was quoted in the press as saying the party “didn’t deserve to win” and that there was “a fin-de-siècle feeling”. It prompted Justin Tomlinson (among others) to say that any minister preparing for defeat should resign and start campaigning for victory. Others say that anyone imagining a brief moment of opposition is delusional. That was Labor’s plan, after all, in 1979.

The coming months could still serve to focus the thoughts. There are plans for a parliamentary day off in a few weeks to remind Tory MPs of the importance of teamwork. Sunak is working to come up with plans that could unite the party. The law on minimum service levels for strikes was passed by the House of Commons this week. Next could be drastic immigration moves that would see Sunak jeopardize his political credentials. If it works – and stranger things have happened in the past seven years – the mood could change both in the party and in the country.

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