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Conservative Government Faces Extinction Event in Upcoming UK Election

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The British Conservative Party and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are facing the prospects of a party-wide wipeout, ahead of the upcoming general election in the United Kingdom. Amid record low polling results for the party, Sunak called a shocking snap election for July 4th, dispelling widespread expectations of an election in the second half of 2024.

Despite the election being called in a period of marginal economic recovery, the Conservatives, also known as the Tories, are trailing behind the opposition Labour Party by over 20 per cent, according to polling aggregate Britain Elects. Under its ‘Britain Predicts’ forecast model, such a result would see the Tories lose more than 200 of its 344 seats in the elected House of Commons, while Labour would win a supermajority composed of more than 400 seats.

 

Fixing a Broken Legacy

The Conservative Party has governed the UK since 2010, and has seen five Tory Prime Ministers over the years. In 2016, Britons voted to leave the European Union (EU), which has defined the country’s politics ever since. Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson was swept into a 365-seat supermajority in the 2019 election, giving him a strong mandate to deliver Brexit, which saw the UK leave the EU in February 2020.

Johnson’s popularity peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the Conservative government oversaw strict lockdowns to curb the spread of the virus. However, amid lockdown scandals involving rule-breaking and partying among senior Tories, dubbed “Partygate”, support for them quickly plummeted. Johnson himself was later directly implicated in a lockdown party, leading to his resignation in September 2022.

Boris Johnson (left) with Rishi Sunak (right), 2020. | Credit: Rishi Sunak via Instagram.

His replacement, Secretary of State (Minister of Foreign Affairs) Liz Truss, oversaw the implementation of libertarian economic policies in her historically short 50-day tenure, which was cut short by the death of Queen Elizabeth II, an economic crash, the collapse of support for the Tories in the polls, and her subsequent resignation. 

Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s former Chancellor (Treasurer), succeeded Truss in October 2022. Due to Sunak’s widespread popularity, gained through his pandemic cash handouts while Chancellor, most Conservative officials expected support for the government to rebound. While both Tory support and the economy quickly rose back to pre-Truss levels under Sunak, it has since been falling steadily once again, leaving the party unable to repair its stained reputation among relentlessly hostile voters.

While many political analysts had anticipated the Tories to hold an election in October, to await a recovery in the polls, Sunak shocked Britons by announcing an election on July 4. Even political parties were caught off guard by the announcement and were forced to rush their candidate selection to meet filing deadlines.

Sunak called the election to coincide with the end of the UK’s economic recession. However, the Conservatives’ odds have not improved at all, amidst the continued stagnation of the economy, and waves of campaign gaffes and blunders.

During the election announcement, the Prime Minister, drenched in rain, spoke outside 10 Downing Street, the office and residence of the Prime Minister. Sunak’s speech was drowned out by the distant hum of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, the campaign song of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, which also prompted widespread ridicule for Sunak.

“Things can only get wetter,” one political party source told HuffPost.

Furthermore, during D-Day commemorations in France, world leaders were also snubbed by Sunak, who cut short his attendance to attend a television interview. The Prime Minister was met with a flurry of criticism from voters and D-Day veterans, while a Savanta poll found that 68 per cent of voters, and 61 per cent of Conservative voters, found Sunak’s actions “unacceptable”.

After a flailing campaign and nationwide dissatisfaction with the Conservative Party, Sunak faces a substantial challenge in his bid to return to 10 Downing Street.

 

Labour

As the forefront opposition the Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, is best placed to defeat the Conservatives. Labour currently holds a commanding lead of more than 20 per cent against the Conservative Party, guaranteeing that Labour will overturn the Tories’ supermajority, which in turn would make it the largest party in the House of Commons.

These polling results have created a sense of inevitability ahead of the election, and most parties, including the Conservatives, have conceded that Keir Starmer will undoubtedly be the next resident of 10 Downing Street.

On the ground, many Tory campaign advertisements have shifted from defending the government’s record to warning of the consequences of an unchecked Labour government. Sunak himself also appears to have adopted this defeatist strategy, using the slogan “stop the supermajority” in advertising.

“Stop the supermajority. Vote Conservative on 4th July [sic]”, Sunak wrote in one post on X, formerly Twitter.

In spite of Labour’s strong lead in the polls, just years ago, the party was facing the prospect of a fifth consecutive election loss. Keir Starmer was selected as leader in 2020, following Labour’s landslide defeat to Boris Johnson in 2019. Starmer succeeded the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, whose anti-establishment vision for Labour sparked fierce debate within the party.

Keir Starmer (right) with Jeremy Corbyn (left) in Parliament, 2019. | Credit: UK Parliament via Flickr.

Starmer has since moved Labour toward the centre, allegedly purging the party of the pro-Corbyn left. A vocal critic of Israel’s conduct and policies on Palestine, Corbyn faced allegations of antisemitism, which harmed Labour’s reputation among Jewish voters. Corbyn himself was suspended from the party in 2020, but regardless, will contest his London constituency of forty years as an independent.

Amid the war in Gaza, Starmer has sought a shaky middle ground, which has alienated British ethnic minorities, including Muslims, who have traditionally been reliable Labour voters. In the 2021 census, 3.9 million Britons identified as Muslim, and were the youngest of all religious groups, which could draw them to the youth-led pro-Palestine movement, which has disavowed Labour.

However, despite Starmer’s poor approval among ethnic minorities, concerns over his “dull” personality, and a “boring“ fiscally conservative manifesto, Starmer’s cautious centrism, which has emphasised healthcare reform and stable economic growth, has nonetheless paid off.

While both Starmer and Sunak are widely unpopular, Starmer holds a massive lead over his opponent in most opinion polls, with a recent YouGov poll finding massive leads for Starmer in all positive attributes, including trustworthiness (33 per cent) and competence (38 per cent).

Should these trends hold, Starmer is on track for a decisive victory over Sunak, with a historic swing that could rival prior landslide elections, like Clement Attlee’s 1945 victory, or Tony Blair’s in 1997.

 

Reform UK

While the Tories are facing a fierce challenge from Labour, their worst troubles have been from its right flank, with Reform UK, a right-wing populist party, threatening to completely fracture the Conservative Party. Formerly known as the Brexit Party, Reform pushed for a unilateral withdrawal from the EU and has since campaigned on conservative policy positions such as cutting down on immigration.

Reform is led by Nigel Farage, a charismatic yet polarising political outsider, a Trump ally, and a former EU parliamentarian. During the course of Brexit, Farage became the face of the “Leave” campaign, which has garnered him supporters within the parliamentary Conservative Party. Farage is running in the general election in an Essex seat currently held by the Tories.

Reform UK Leader Nigel Farage, June 2024. | Credit: Nigel Farage, via X.

Farage has conceded that Reform cannot win the election, but has instead positioned the party as a sensible opposition to Labour, promising to freeze all non-essential immigration, abandon all net zero emissions targets, and cut taxes while increasing spending, among other populist policies.

Reform currently polls at more than 15 per cent according to Britain Elects, only a few points behind the Conservative Party. While this result would see the party win only a handful of seats, due to its votes not being concentrated, Reform continues to pose  great concerns to the Tories.

Unlike Australia, British general elections do not offer preferential voting options. In the UK’s first-past-the-post system, an election winner does not require an absolute majority, and no candidate preferences are redistributed. As it mostly appeals to traditional Conservative voters, Reform has threatened to act as a spoiler for the Tories nationally, despite their sizable combined vote share.

Despite the adoration for Farage, and whispers that he could even be a future Tory leader, he has ruled outjoining the Conservative Party, and has publicly promised to end the Tories, attacking both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer.

Farage however has left open the possibility of an inter-party merger, which he would likely lead, owing to his popularity within both Reform and the right wing of the Conservative Party. The Reform leader himself also appears to believe that he will lead the Tories in the near future.

“I’d be very surprised if I were not Conservative leader by ‘26,” Farage said in a statement to PoliticsHome. “They think I’m joking. I’m serious.”

 

Minor Parties

A range of other minor candidates are also contesting the election, with the most significant of them being smaller socially progressive parties. Due to the lack of preferential voting in the United Kingdom, websites such as GetVoting have provided tactical voting recommendations to oust the Conservatives, based on polling data and electorate information.

With greater awareness for tactical voting due to this campaign, both Labour and minor parties have benefitted tremendously, with anti-Conservative votes coalescing around candidates with the best chances of defeating incumbent Tories. According to YouGov, one in five British voters will be voting tactically this election.

Liberal Democrats

Of these minor progressive parties, the Liberal Democrats are one party expected to benefit from tactical voting. A left of centre party, the Liberal Democrats have traditionally been the mantle of third-party politics.

With growing support among younger educated voters, the Liberal Democrats are expected to become the third largest party in the House of Commons, just behind the Conservative Party. In some polls, the Liberal Democrats have even been projected to overtake the Tories, although it remains unlikely that they will become the Official Opposition party 

Scottish National Party

In Scotland, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is reaching the end of its lifespan, and will face a tough challenge defending its position as the third largest party in the House of Commons. Amid declining momentum for Scottish independence, scandals plaguing the party, and 17 years of SNP rule in Scotland’s devolved government, Scottish voters have soured on the party, leaving it in a tumultuous position.

While the party will face difficulty defending its seats against a supercharged Labour Party, and the Liberal Democrats, the SNP may be hoping to capitalise on the further erosion of the Conservatives in Scotland, which may help it in winning over remaining Tory constituencies in the northeast and south.

Other Parties

Other notable parties with seats in the House of Commons include Plaid Cymru, a Welsh regionalist party that has battled for adequate representation in Wales, and the Green Party, which thus far has struggled to wrestle younger voters away from other parties, but is experiencing a wave of appeal in rural Tory seats.

 

Desperate Measures

The election looks bleak for the Tories. Sunak himself is facing a tough campaign battle closer to home, with some polls suggesting he may be defeated in his Yorkshire seat, which would be the first in UK history for a sitting Prime Minister. According to The Guardian, the Prime Minister himself has privately expressed concerns about a potential defeat in his constituency.

Many senior Conservatives are also at risk of losing their seats, including Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, House of Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt, former Prime Minister Liz Truss, and other veteran Tories like Grant Shapps and Jacob Rees-Mogg, while others could be defeated via tactical voting.

A Labour advertisement on TikTok featuring Rishi Sunak. It reads “Don’t wake up to 5 more years of the Tories on Friday, vote Labour on Thursday 4 July.”

In an attempt to consolidate its core base to avoid such losses, and differentiate its manifesto from Labour’s, Sunak has drifted right on key issues, abandoning the centre, and drafting up polarising measures to appeal to traditional Conservative voters, who are increasingly abandoning the party for Reform.

Last year, Sunak postponed plans to ban petrol vehicles by 2030, which would be legislated in Britain’s transition to net zero, while a number of other green policies have since been scrapped or delayed.

Since 2022, the party has also sought to complement its tough migration policy with its keystone Rwanda plan, which would see asylum seekers relocated to the small Central African country. Last year, however, the scheme was struck down by the Supreme Court, citing the unsafe conditions of Rwanda as a basis for the ruling. While the number of small boat crossings into Britain continues to soar, the Rwanda plan has faltered, leaving it in a legal limbo.

Among the most divisive Conservative election promises is the reintroduction of national service, a £2.5 billion policy that would codify mandatory military or community service for eighteen-year-olds. While the policy could harm the already dwindling Tory vote share among young adults, the measure has proven to be popular among older voters and Conservatives, according to a YouGov poll in May.

While such measures have had limited success in winning back traditional Tory voters, the party is still facing a landslide defeat to Keir Starmer and is struggling to defend itself from Nigel Farage’s relentless attacks.

As it stands, a Conservative upset is not impossible, but rather, is near impossible, and Starmer is undoubtedly the likeliest candidate to come out as the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

What remains unclear is who will remain to lead the Tories, and whether the 112-year old party can survive an extinction event. If the party cannot hold out on July 4, aside from conceding government to Labour, Nigel Farage may be destined to become the leader of a new reformed Conservative Party.

 
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