January 11, 2024 - 7:00am

The most puzzling question in British politics is this: why aren’t the Tories panicking yet? The latest YouGov poll puts Rishi Sunak’s party on 22% and Keir Starmer’s on 46%. You know things are bad when the Labour lead exceeds the total level of Tory support.

1997 is the modern benchmark for Conservative landslide defeats — when John Major’s Conservatives lost 178 seats to end up with just 165 MPs. Something similar is widely expected this year, but what if that’s still too optimistic? 

In 1997, the Conservatives got 31% of the vote. These days, they dream of such dizzy heights. Then there’s the threat from the populist Right. In Major’s time, this mainly came from Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party — which won 2.6% of the vote. Contrast that to Reform UK, which, according to YouGov, is on 9% of the vote.

In short, the basic maths in 2024 looks a lot worse than 27 years ago. So why shouldn’t an even more crushing defeat be expected? It’s worth remembering what happened to the Canadian Tories in 1993, who crashed from 156 seats to just 2. It probably won’t get that bad for the British Tories, nevertheless the polls are pointing to the worst result in the party’s history.

A thread by the psephologist Jane Green explains why their position won’t automatically improve before the election. It didn’t in the run-up to 1997 — and back then there was only one millstone round the party’s neck (Black Wednesday). Today the party is weighed-down by three extinction-level events: Partygate, the Truss implosion and the ongoing chaos of the Government’s immigration policy.

Rishi Sunak shows little sign of understanding just how much trouble his party is in. His bland election strategy depends on an improving economy, but that didn’t work for John Major in the 1990s when growth was much stronger. Nor will fear of a Labour government do the trick. Again, this didn’t work for Major. Starmer isn’t as popular as Tony Blair was, but he is too boring to frighten the horses.

The hope that ex-Tory voters are waiting to return is therefore a vain one. A more straightforward explanation for the polls is that the electorate is out for blood. The Conservative Party is in for a righteous hiding that it will never forget — if, that is, it survives the experience.

With closer to 100 than 200 MPs, the Conservatives in opposition would be acutely vulnerable to a takeover bid. Nigel Farage will be ready-and-waiting to offer a merger with Reform UK — and himself as leader. Or failing that, he could solicit multiple defections. Dominic Cummings has a plan to replace the party altogether; while Boris Johnson could re-emerge from the wilderness to turn what’s left of the Tories into his personal cult.

At the very least, trying to form a functional shadow cabinet from a hundred-odd MPs would be an impossible task for a post-election leader. There is, however, an alternative — which is to attempt a re-boot of the party before the election. That would mean replacing Sunak with someone with the ability to make an instant connection with the British people. Though it’s too late to transform the government’s record, a gifted communicator might just change the narrative. As things stand, that means either Kemi Badenoch or Penny Mordaunt.

Of course, the odds of success are slim. Nevertheless, a bold new leader would stand a greater chance now than after the Tory apocalypse.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.