Why has Rishi Sunak’s campaign been such a disaster?

This article is an onsite version of our Inside Politics newsletter. Subscribers can sign up here to get the newsletter delivered every weekday. If you’re not a subscriber, you can still receive the newsletter free for 30 days

Good morning. Polls are open and voting is under way. Every scrap of data, from the local elections, to the polls, to where the party leaders are campaigning, suggests the election is going to be a record-breaking triumph for Labour and an all-mighty disaster for the Conservatives.

Keir Starmer’s campaign has pushed the same message that has summed up essentially everything he has said since, at the absolute latest, Labour’s conference in 2022: what do we want? Change! When do we want it? Not at a pace that frightens middle England! How will we pay for it? With some small token tax rises on “the rich”!

While Labour can keep the letter of its manifesto promises without further, broader tax rises, I am dubious that it can keep the spirit of them. What people really hear when Starmer talks about “change” is: the UK’s public services, particularly the NHS, will improve and start to work properly again. Those aren’t problems that can be solved merely by ending the VAT exemption for private schools or changing the tax arrangements of wealthy non-domiciled residents.

But for Labour that is a problem for another day. In the here and now, the party is heading for a sweeping victory. While one reason for that is Starmer’s decision-making, not just in this short campaign but since becoming leader of the Labour party, another reason is the decisions taken by Rishi Sunak since he became leader of the Tory party, and his maladroit election campaign. Some more thoughts on that below.

Thanks for sending in all your election questions ahead of our live Q&A event for subscribers at 1pm tomorrow. Sign up here.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Read the previous edition of the newsletter here. Please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com

Spinners and losers

Will the Conservatives’ worst-ever general election campaign end with its worst-ever general election result? Lucy Fisher reveals that the party’s own internal projections show it is confident it will hold just 80 seats with a further 60 “in play” — meaning that in the best-case scenario, the party would return only about 140 MPs, a record-breakingly bad defeat. That is also the story in the various election models released by the pollsters.

The biggest reason why these projections are all over the place is that the Conservative party is polling like a third party, and when you have three parties (the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and Reform) each with a vote share of between 10 and 21 per cent, first past the post can throw up very odd results.

One detail I was struck by in Anna Gross’s excellent write-up from Sunak’s battle bus was that Sunak, who was already campaigning deep in Tory territory a week ago, is now campaigning in seats with even larger majorities. He visited Beaconsfield, where in 2019 Joy Morrissey got 56 per cent of the vote even against the independent candidate Dominic Grieve, the area’s popular MP with a national profile, and Banbury, which has had Conservative MPs since 1922.

The Tory party’s position has visibly deteriorated even since the local elections in May, which were very, very, very bad for the party. It’s tempting to blame that solely on the party’s disastrous election campaign and how Sunak has conducted it. But Sunak’s poor campaign is inseparable from how he has governed.

Take money. The party’s fundraising is lagging well behind the Labour party and previous election campaigns, which means, among other things, they are getting badly outspent in the digital advertising war.

That lack of money means — as Anna reports — you have staffers griping that they have not been paid for six weeks because of the lack of funds, and many of the party’s communications lack professionalism and clarity.

(As someone who thinks an awful lot about what makes an email newsletter get redirected to someone’s spam folders, I’ve felt more than a twinge of professional pain looking at Tory party email communications, most of which look like Conservative aides are running some sort of challenge to hit as many marks of bad practice as possible.)

It’s true that it is harder for political parties to raise money when they are expected to lose an election. Modern requirements to disclose funding and its sources are a New Labour innovation, so we can’t say for certain how the Tory party’s fundraising today compares with 1964, 1970, 1992 and 1997, all elections when the Conservatives were expected to lose.

But we can compare it with 2001, when even the dogs in the street knew that Tony Blair was going to be re-elected. The Tory party under William Hague raised and spent more in that election than Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Blair was a more pro-business prime minister than anyone thinks Starmer will be. Perhaps if Sunak’s inner circle hadn’t had to spend quite so much time seeking donations in kind for the prime minister’s air and helicopter travel, and instead spent it seeking actual cash donations for the Conservatives, they wouldn’t be being out-fundraised now and their campaign would be better conducted.

A consequence of Sunak’s air travel is that he does not use the roads or rail that he oversees all that much. (While private companies provide the actual train services, they are so tightly regulated on everything from fares to timetables that the reality is they are run and controlled by the government.) I’m a great believer that leaders need to, to quote a phrase from this excellent 2022 profile of Mars’s outgoing chief executive, “eat their own dog food”. Ministers should use the public services they provide from time to time to get a worm’s-eye view.

Sunak’s lack of that view is surely part of why he has gone into an election with so little to say about public services, and with so many of them in a dire state. The backdrop of stories about the crisis in the UK’s prison system was always going to make this a very hard election for the Tories to improve their position. The NHS’s record-long waiting lists are, also, a huge problem for the government.

The lack of focus and grip on the condition of public services in England by the prime minister meant that he went into this election — in which he was always going to be targeting the wants and needs of asset-rich pensioners — carrying a threefold wound. The NHS, the part of the state that is used most by the older voters Sunak is trying to woo, is in a bad state of repair. The criminal justice system, whose failures those same people all read and hear about, is visibly in distress. And legal immigration is at record levels while Sunak’s own promise to “stop the boats” has not been kept.

Even if Sunak was the best and most charismatic campaigner the UK had ever seen, he was always going to struggle to win an election against that backdrop. But when you combine the prime minister’s shortcomings with the damage done to the Tory party’s reputation for economic competence by the Truss experiment, and the loss of goodwill caused by Boris Johnson’s lockdown-breaking parties, you have all the ingredients for a disaster for the Conservatives.

The only question is whether today will usher in a disaster the Tory party can recover from, or if we see the party suffer a blow so great that it permanently reshapes the whole of British politics.

Now try this

To all our readers running or campaigning in this election: I wish you good weather and well-behaved dogs. To everyone: I’m incredibly grateful for the election literature, direct mail (both via snail mail and email) and social media adverts you have sent me, all of which have sharpened my thinking and understanding of what is going on in this election.

I’ll be popping up on the FT liveblog from 10pm onwards. Until then I will be conserving my energy, aka lazing around all day listening to Shostakovich and playing video games. Inside Politics will be out at a slightly earlier time tomorrow morning to dissect the results.

A poll before you go: how many seats do you think the Tories will get? Vote here.

Top stories today

  • 4:15 to Starmer | From roughly 2.00am tomorrow morning, the number of election results will pick up, with the Financial Times forecasting that Labour — if polls are correct — is likely to have a clear majority by about 4.15am. Much more on what to expect in the FT’s visual guide here . . . 

  • The Sun swings behind Labour | The Sun has backed Labour to win the general election along with the majority of the UK’s national newspapers, the first time the opposition party has gained such wide media support since Tony Blair two decades ago.

  • Tick tock | The Conservatives have massively increased spending on social media advertising in the final week before polling day, in an eleventh-hour boost to their online campaign.

  • Reliving the highlights | From Rishi Sunak’s soggy campaign launch to Ed Davey’s antics, George Parker and Rafe Uddin take a look at memorable moments from this election.

  • Labour’s ‘data nerd’ | Jim Pickard profiles the influential Morgan McSweeney, who will begin a data-heavy review of the party’s performance within days, whether or not Labour sweeps to the resounding victory suggested by the polls.

Below is the Financial Times’s live-updating UK poll-of-polls, which combines voting intention surveys published by major British pollsters. Visit the FT poll-tracker page to discover our methodology and explore polling data by demographic including age, gender, region and more.

Recommended newsletters for you

US Election Countdown — Money and politics in the race for the White House. Sign up here

FT Opinion — Insights and judgments from top commentators. Sign up here

First appeared on www.ft.com

Leave a Comment