- First published in the Metro 5th October 2023 -
For those watching Rishi Sunak's Conservative Party conference speech on Wednesday, you might have been surprised by his jubilant tone and overt confidence.
Considering the current state of his Government, his party, and indeed, the country, I think a lot of us were expecting something more akin to a eulogy.
So what explains his confidence? Why was everyone leaving that hall full of smiles and warm words about the fifth leader to come out of this tired government? Is it wishful thinking? False bravado? Borderline delusion?
As we’ve seen time and again with our backwards electoral system – and as we saw play out in real time in the Uxbridge by-election – Sunak and his party may have cause to feel confident, even when taking into account the events of the past year.
Predictions of a Tory wipeout only strengthened with a cost-of-living crisis, as doctors have no choice but to remain on strike and as kids face a chilly winter in mobile classrooms due to short-sighted decisions. And that’s before we mention the sleaze, the sewage and the scandalous waste of money.
And then there was the Tory Conference itself.
Sunak is probably pretty chuffed with the reception he received for his ‘jam tomorrow’ speech, where he cancelled the UK's largest infrastructure project and replaced it with a bundle of un-costed promises safe in the knowledge that they all can’t be achieved before the next election.
How many will actually be delivered? Probably about the same number of new hospitals we got from the last guy.
Beyond Sunak’s speech, the Conference itself was – all in all – a pretty desperate affair. Rishi’s hopes of holding his fractured party together were dashed on day one, when his party disintegrated into a raucous riot of tax-crazed fanatics and a barely-disguised leadership contest. Scenes just short of a party in open revolt.
Even lettuce Liz made an appearance to unabashedly give top tips on economic growth. As if the first time wasn’t bad enough.
And it only went downhill from there. Ministers’ speeches looked to me to be held in noticeably smaller auditoriums this year and even then, they struggled to get bums on seats. It probably felt like that nightmare where you throw a party and no one shows up. Clearly not the sign of a party in rude health.
So why am I worried about a Tory Party win at the next general election?
For the record, I shouldn’t be. Labour are most definitely on course to be the largest party at the next election. The push factors away from the Conservatives are very close to being insurmountable.
And while we await Starmer’s own Conference speech later this month, we have to be relatively pleased with his comments on green energy, workers’ rights and a closer relationship with the EU.
So what explains Sunak’s confidence?
The UK’s outdated first-past-the-post electoral system means that parties can win all of the power with a minority of votes. In 2019, the Conservatives won 56% of seats with only 43.6% of the vote, giving them 100% of the power.
Indeed, if the share of seats matched the share of votes, the Conservatives would have only won two of the last 21 elections and even Margaret Thatcher would have failed to secure a majority.
So while Labour might be the most popular party right now, we can’t forget that the system seems built to split centre-left voters. And from Sunak’s bravado, it sounds like he not only knows this, but is counting on it.
The upcoming by-election in Mid Bedfordshire is a perfect example of how, against all expectations, things could go wrong for Labour and for all of us desperate to see the Tories kicked out of government.
The seat is up for grabs after the resignation of Nadine Dorries. But despite claims of disgraceful neglect of her constituents, the outcome is still too close to call, with polls suggesting that the split in the progressive vote could allow the Conservatives to retain the seat.
Now repeat that scenario in scores of constituencies across the country at the next general election and Labour’s victory looks a little less assured.