Anne Sandager
1 week ago

History Shows That Sunak Can Make a Comeback

Rishi Sunak wants to deliver “the greatest comeback in political history”. Fortunately, history does provide some evidence that Tory underdogs can make surprising comebacks before an election. Here is how.
11.07.2023. — Photo by gints.ivuskans
11.07.2023. — Photo by gints.ivuskans

It is difficult–if not impossible–to find a pundit at the moment willing to bet on a Conservative victory in the upcoming UK general election July 4. Looking at polling numbers alone, it is easy to understand why. 

The Labour Party is predicted to win an outright majority of seats in parliament, 479 in total. If this result sticks on election night, it would be the best result for any UK party in recorded history. 

However, as is often the case with foregone conclusions, it is tempting to provide a little reality-check. So, here are the contingencies that could just salvage the election for Prime Minister Sunak.

Not Unprecedented

The year is 1992. John Major, former chancellor in prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s government is seeking to replicate the electoral success of his former boss. 

At this point the Conservatives have been in power for more than a decade, but were now predicted to lose the general election to a Labour party led by Niel Kinnock. 

There are many parallels between the 1992 and 2024 elections.  

Like today, the 1992 election was staged on a backdrop of economic uncertainty. Neither Kinnock nor Starmer are regarded as particularly charismatic leaders (albeit for very different reasons), rather their advantage can be credited to Tory policies and internal party disputes.

The gap in popularity between Major and Kinnock peaked in 1990, when the Conservative Party was trailing behind Labour by 20%-points in opinion polls, roughly the same gap as today. Despite this daunting prognosis, John Major secured a narrow majority of 21 MP on election night. 

The crucial difference is that Major had two years to turn the electoral tide around, Sunak has five weeks. No UK party has ever come back from Sunak’s polling numbers this late in the race.

Most Successful Party in History

The British Conservative Party is sometimes referred to as “the most successful party in history”. The Tories have been winning elections since the 1830s. Out of the last 50 years they have held the Premiership in 38 of them. 

The key to Tory longevity is multifaceted. 

Without a doubt, the Tories have been effective in adapting to changing voter streams keeping them relevant. 

The Conservatives under Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli passed the reform act of 1867 to extend male suffrage despite previously being staunch critics of democracy. 

More recently, Boris Johnson loosened his stance on public spending in a move to win Red Wall voters keen on Brexit. 

However, there is also an argument to be made about British voters being inherently more conservative than their European peers. 

By this, I don’t mean fiscally conservative, and Brits certainly are not more culturally conservative than elsewhere in Europe. 

Rather, they are electorally conservative. The last time the Tories relinquished the Premiership after just one term was in 1974 under Sir Edward Heath. 

A study of all UK general elections between 1983-2010 by Nottingham University showed that incumbent MPs enjoyed a positive and significant advantage against their challengers, albeit the effect was smaller for Conservatives than Labour and, particularly, the Liberal Democrats.

Better the Devil You Know

The Conservatives have been the governing party for the past 14 years. Most first-time voters will have no memory of a time when they were not in power. 

That sets a high bar for the Labour Party to convince Brits that they are a viable alternative who knows how to govern. A torn voter, ballot in hand, is likely to default back to ‘the devil she knows’.

This is no less true than in times of military upheaval. Several of the most popular prime ministers according to YouGov, including top-ranked Winston Churchill, are war-time prime ministers. It is clear that Rishi Sunak’s campaign is betting heavily on sowing doubt in the British voter in light of the current geopolitical climate.

Sunak’s efforts to make security the central issue of the 2024 election could pay off, especially if the Ukraine or Gaza conflict escalates dramatically

With a month until the election, this is grasping at straws, but military tensions in Europe are higher than they have been in the past 20 years. 

In general, there are very few things Sunak himself can do to turn the election around. He can wait for an unlikely exogenous shock to throw the UK into crisis-mode. The other, more realistic option is hoping that the opposition will mess it up for itself.

Keir Starmer’s to Lose

Jeremy Corbyn’s election defeat in 2019 has served as a long term cautionary tale for any Labour leader with Prime Minister ambitions. 

Corbyn–despite not winning the premiership in 2017–was considered a sparkling electoral success as he managed to snatch the parliamentary majority away from the ruling Conservative party. 

Two years later, he oversaw Labour's worst election result since 1935. Accusations of anti-semitism and a weak stance on Brexit sent Corbyn’s popularity plummeting. His lack of credibility gave a well-oiled Tory campaign machine the perfect lay-up to the 2019 landslide.

Starmer has spent the better part of his time as Labour leader distancing himself from ‘Corbynites’ in the party. 

He is framing himself as a more pragmatic alternative to his progressive predecessor, however, this has opened up a new avenue of criticism from grassroots voters. 

Starmer’s stance on the Israel-Gaza conflict, in particular, have angered young progressives, many of whom have sworn to vote for third-party candidates. This could result in ‘vote wasting’. However, Nigel Farage’s Reform Party is posing the same if not bigger risk of vote wasting to the Conservatives.

Rishi Sunak isn’t lying when he says that it would require a ‘historic comeback’ to turn the election around. However, history has also shown that this is indeed possible. 

Sunak might not be the next prime minister of the UK, but a hung parliament is certainly a realistic scenario, in turn, paving the way for a quicker-than-expected return to Tory rule.


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