They might be dominating the polls but a Labour victory at the next general election is not guaranteed, according to one leading political scientist. Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University and senior research fellow at the Scottish Centre for Social Research, added that Rishi Sunak faces a major challenge in turning the tide on his party’s “dire electoral position”.
Prof Curtice told NationalWorld that the prime minister has struggled to maintain the popularity he once had during the pandemic when the furlough scheme and the Eat Out to Help Out scheme made him a household name.
But with voters dealing with the worst cost of living crisis in recent memory, record-high inflation, acute pressure on health and public services and a battered economy, Sunak faces an uphill battle in boosting not only his own reputation but also that of his party.
As the prime minister marks 100 days in office, Prof Curtice spoke to us about whether the Conservatives under Sunak’s leadership have a chance in winning the next general election.
‘He’s struggling to maintain his popularity’
“There’s so far only been modest electoral progress,” the polling guru said. “One of the hopes the Conservatives had in replacing Liz Truss with Sunak was that his greater popularity, at least amongst the general public and not Conservative voters, would help to drag his party up [in the polls]. Well he’s not really dragged his party up but what is true is that his own popularity has gone down.”
Prof Curtice said Sunak’s legacy (before entering Number 10) was as the chancellor who managed to rescue the economy, particularly the labour market, during the pandemic. “But that legacy doesn’t seem to have lasted very long and he’s struggling to maintain his popularity. The party’s electoral position still looks pretty dire and it’s not a lot better than when Truss left.”
Polling from YouGov shows Sunak’s approval rating has worsened since he entered office in October. The most recent polling (23 January) shows more than half (56%) of respondents saying that the prime minister is doing a bad job, while just 25% say he is doing well. Separate polling taken during the prime minister’s time as chancellor (2020 to 2022) in May 2020 had his approval ratings at a record high at 53% (around two months after he launched the furlough scheme).
Are the odds against Sunak?
“The fundamental problem the government faces is not dissimilar to that of Labour in the 1970s – we have very high inflation, eroding living standards and heading for a recession (but perhaps not as bad as first thought),” Prof Curtice explained.
“It’s simply the case that no post-war government that has presided over a fiscal/financial crisis has managed to survive at the ballot box in the next election.”
Prof Curtice said by October next 2024 the Conservatives would need to get the country out of recession, ensure living standards are starting to rise, reduce taxes a bit and most importantly, “when you ring up an ambulance it comes on time”. The date of the next general election is yet to be announced but it can be held no later than January 2025.
“That’s the challenge, it’s not easy. It’s very, very difficult to put all those things in place.”
‘A hung parliament or a Labour government’
“The other big problem the Conservatives have is they don’t have many friends in the House of Commons at the moment,” the political scientist continued. “So if we end up with a hung parliament in which the Tories end up with less than 320 seats, they’re stuffed because no one is going to help sustain a minority Conservative administration. What we’re probably going to be talking about is whether we end up with a majority Labour administration or a hung parliament.”
A hung parliament is a parliament in which no party has a majority of seats, meaning the largest party can either form a minority government or enter into a coalition government of two or more parties. The last time this happened was in 2010 when David Cameron’s Conservatives fell 20 seats short of a majority and had to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
“I certainly don’t think a Labour party victory is a shoo-in,” said Prof Curtice. “But the Conservatives getting themselves to the point where they can sustain another administration in the next parliament is a really, really big challenge. “Given where they’re at in the polls, given the prognosis of public services and the economy and given the fact they don’t have any friends inside the House of Commons.”