Analysis from Chris Hopkins, Political Research Director at Savant ComRes has pointed out that the political upheaval of the last year cannot be understated.
All bar one of Savanta ComRes’ October 2021 polls showed the Conservative Party five points ahead of Labour: not a giant lead, and possibly a reduced majority based on 2019 if such figures played out at a General Election, but a workable Conservative majority, nonetheless.
Fast forward 12 months, three Prime Ministers, four Chancellors and countless scandals later, with inflation over 10% and interest rates expected to reach 6%, Labour are 25 points ahead in the latest Savanta ComRes poll, having been 30 ahead in the dying days of Liz Truss’ short-lived premiership.
The shift in the last year has been immense, and while in 2021 Labour’s better performance in opinion polls comparative to 2019 was mostly down to squeezing the Liberal Democrat vote and being more palatable to some of their traditional voters than they were under Jeremy Corbyn, their lead now has stemmed from 2019 Conservative voters abandoning the Tories en masse, directly switching to Labour in increasing numbers, or saying they’re undecided and being excluded from headline voting polls, widening Labour’s lead.
Sunak will have a polling boost from simply not being Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, much like Keir Starmer did from simply not being Jeremy Corbyn. But while he may stem the tide, stop the haemorrhaging, can he win an election?
For the participants of our most recent focus group, all of whom voted Conservative in 2019 but would vote Labour if there was an election tomorrow, Sunak will have a very tough job winning them back around.
“If I were to vote Conservative again, then I’m not breaking the cycle, I’m just carrying on accepting what they do. And it’s not a case of what we had with Corbyn, where it [voting Labour] was a definite no.” – Gemma, Leeds East
Most of our group voted Conservative in 2019 not because they were enamoured with Boris Johnson, but more because they could not bear to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Although the group expressed different voting histories, some considering themselves more traditionally left-leaning, while others felt more at home with the Conservatives, all found the idea of Corbyn – in 2017 and 2019 – considerably worse than the idea of Johnson.
“I didn’t find Jeremy Corbyn very convincing. The only ones that were pretty positive with what they had to offer were the Conservatives.” – Andrew, Ashfield
“I couldn’t relate to Jeremy Corbyn at all, and whatever he said, I couldn’t believe or think it would actually come into force. So, I voted Conservative.” – Vikki, Wolverhampton North East
But it was Johnson, rather than Truss, that left them feeling disillusioned with their vote choice. Johnson chipped away at these people’s support; they had faith in him when they voted for him, they backed him throughout the pandemic – even the participants that felt that lockdown was draconian still tended to back Johnson throughout – but in the end, felt let down by him.
Partygate was the catalyst, of course, but participants struggled to pinpoint exactly when their transition to voting Labour came around. Their relationship with the Conservatives ergo Johnson felt more like death by a thousand cuts rather than there being one particular straw that broke the camel’s back.
Some participants did point to the “shambles” of recent weeks that perhaps truly pushed them “over the edge” to voting Labour, but it felt like an anti-Conservative sentiment had been building among this group for a long time, and while it wouldn’t be a lie to say that Truss was the one to actually push some of them to Labour, that would majorly downplay the role Johnson had in the process.
Some expressed disbelief that Johnson had the audacity to consider a Conservative leadership bid to replace Truss, and although most said with the benefit of hindsight Tory MPs were wrong to get rid of him – down almost entirely to the chaos that ensued under Truss – none said that bringing Johnson back would have switched their voting intention back to the Conservatives.
“For me it’s been bubbling along for a little while, but to be honest it was probably only in the last week I thought if I was to vote in a General Election it would be for Labour” – David P, Southport
“I think I changed my mind at the demise of Boris Johnson. I didn’t like him at the end. I felt that he was basically a liar and at that point decided that I preferred Keir Starmer and that I would probably vote Labour at the next election.” – Nat, East Surrey
“It was just one thing after another, and I think people got tired of it. But in hindsight now I would have rather Boris stuck it out a little bit longer than have the ridiculous embarrassment of what’s happened with Liz Truss.” – Gemma, Leeds East
But now there’s a new guy in charge. Rishi Sunak, in one word, was described as ‘slick’, ‘calculating’, ‘dependable’, and ‘intriguing’ by participants – certainly no worse than other politicians were we to ask the same question – with many believing that, although he may not be their dream politician, is certainly the right person for the job at the moment given the UK’s economic backdrop and the lack of other, capable alternatives. Participants had a positive view of Sunak following the support packages he announced during the pandemic, but beyond the millions he doled out in Covid-related support schemes, Sunak gave the participants an air of credibility, pragmatism, stability, and control. There was some criticism of the handling of PPE contracts, but even Eat Out to Help Out, which has drawn criticism for resulting in a spike in Covid cases, was deemed the right move at the time by this group.
“I think he probably will be quite competent in what he pushes forward. Whether he’ll win a General Election? Not convinced. But I think if anyone is going to see through the rest of the Conservative’s time in office, he probably is the best of the bunch.” – Gemma, Leeds East
“It’s so obvious he was the right person for the job. I knew who Rishi was. And I knew what he’d done [during the pandemic] and whether I agreed with it or not, you have to give him credit for the way that he handled it. I think he was very trustworthy.” – Nadia, Brentford and Isleworth
“He was a sound Chancellor and so he’s obviously got a grasp with the economy, so I don’t think he’ll make that worse which I feel Liz Truss with her mini budget did.” – Nat, East Surrey
The conversation soon moved to Sunak’s wealth. The word ‘rich’ dominated a Savanta ComRes word cloud from a 2,000 person poll asking people to describe Sunak in one word, and his vast wealth was not lost on participants. Whether it matters, though, was debated. Some participants felt that it did matter, that being as wealthy as Sunak directly equates to being out of touch, and that it’s unlikely he can truly understand the hardships that people up and down the country face. Participants felt that being rich in and of itself wasn’t the issue, but their contention stemmed for the extremity of Sunak’s fortune, coupled with the nationwide economic hardship he’s likely to preside over.
“It’s the scale of it, the enormity of how above [the breadline] he is and unrealistic it is that he knows what it’s like to live our lives.” – Nat, East Surrey
“I’m not against him because he’s rich, you know, he’s obviously worked hard for most of his money, that doesn’t bother me at all. But when he is so far away from most of our realities, that’s what I don’t sit comfortably with, and he can’t relate to us” – Vikki, Wolverhampton North East
“I don’t think we’re going to get anybody as Prime Minister who truly gets what it’s like to be on the breadline. We praised [Sunak] 15-20 minutes ago about the help he gave with furlough and so now we can’t all of a sudden say, ‘well, he’s rich, he doesn’t understand’” – David B, Scunthorpe
There was a sense that Sunak doesn’t necessarily have the answers for Britain’s plight at this time, but nor is that necessarily his fault. While it’s not a surprise for Sunak to not have the answers straight away – this focus group met the day Sunak met the King and formally became Prime Minister – perceptions matter, and there was a general feeling among participants that the positive feeling towards Sunak is exacerbated by the fact that what came before him was so bad, and that even if he does bring about some stability, no matter what he does the Conservative’s time in government is up.
To be replaced by Labour, then, one would assume. The Conservative Party are banking on Rishi Sunak’s appeal being universal enough to win back the voters the Conservatives have lost at the hands of Johnson and Truss over the last year. This group seem sceptical about Sunak’s prospects; while they are reasonably positive about the new Prime Minister, and only moderately positive about the Labour Party, there was a strong sense from this group that they wanted some real change. While it may not be music to Keir Starmer’s ears that this group’s main motivations for voting Labour are “it’s worth giving somebody else a go”, it’s “their turn” or “they’re just not the Conservatives”, if Labour can harness that feeling and convince enough voters that a vote for them is a vote for change, they’re certainly on a very strong path towards Downing Street. When pressed on whether Rishi Sunak, as a new leader trying to distance himself from the reasons why these voters have abandoned the Conservative Party, presents enough of a change to avoid switching to Labour, the group felt as though Sunak will do a decent enough job until the next election, but ultimately, he feels more like a captain – through no fault of his own – going down with his ship.
Despite this, the group were not keen on an immediate General Election. They did not think the country, or the financial markets, needed the upheaval right now, and were willing to give Sunak a chance, albeit as a caretaker, to see the country through the worst of what’s still to come economically.
“I think the time has come to change it and the only alternative at the moment is Labour.” – Andrew, Ashfield
“I think he will be enough to see us through, but I don’t think the Conservatives will win another General Election. I think the people have had enough.” – Gemma, Leeds East
“If we could have a vote tomorrow, yes, let’s get Labour in. But it’s not going to happen that way, so let’s give [Sunak] a chance.” – Nat, East Surrey
Coming out of this group, I’m unsure what to think. On the one hand, Labour’s position feels precarious. This group is willing to give Sunak a chance to change their mind; they already feel reasonably positive about him (especially compared to his predecessors), and not overly positive about the Labour Party, whose main asset right now is merely not being the Conservatives.
But on the other hand, parties have won elections on far less. This group was furious to the point of exhaustion with Boris Johnson and blame the Conservative Party more generally for the chaos that allowed him to cling on for so long, as well as the chaos that ensued when he departed. There are few messages that resonate more than the country simply needing, or it being time for, a change, and that currently is what the Labour Party would represent after more than 12 years of Conservative rule.
While it’s all well and good giving Sunak a chance, what chance does he have? Unless he can summon a miracle, Britain is facing an economically bleak winter, which is likely to continue into 2023 and possibly 2024, with little wiggle room for serious economic positivity before an election must be held.
Voters don’t reward parties that preside over economic gloom, and nor do they reward divided parties. Sunak has a gargantuan task on his hands but, while the result of the next election is not yet a foregone conclusion, it will be the fault of his party and his predecessors rather than himself if the Conservatives do lose the next election. His ability to distance himself from Truss and Johnson may well be his trump card if he is to salvage the party from an electoral capitulation.