Three years ago, Boris Johnson assembled a unique big tent coalition, delivering the Conservatives a once in a generation majority. That coalition is no more. Current polling points to a 17-point Conservative to Labour swing, far larger than Tony Blair achieved in 1997, with roughly half of 2019 Tory voters now backing someone else. Rejection of the Conservatives spans the length and breadth of the country, from the red wall to the blue wall, among Remain voters and among Brexiters.
The Brexit coalition has collapsed because the forces holding it together – frustration over Brexit and fear of a Corbyn-led government – have dissipated and nothing has replaced them. Johnson fulfilled his Brexit pledges early, passing his “oven-ready” deal in the first months of the government, and following it with a trade agreement within a year. Those early successes have left a growing void. “Getting Brexit done” was supposed to change things for the better. Even the most ardent Brexiters now find the reality disappointing. Half of Leave voters say the government has handled the issue badly, while a record one in five Brexiters now think the decision to depart was a mistake.
Conservative success since Brexit has also been driven by recruitment from Ukip, which once drew the support of one voter in eight, but collapsed after the referendum. Now rising disappointment with Brexit and frustration over the small boats crisis in the Channel are making the radical right restive once again. Reform UK, the latest Ukip successor, has been ticking up in polls, and is threatening to stand candidates in every Conservative seat at the next election. This would be a major headache for Conservative MPs who dodged Brexit party challenges in 2019 and would now face the prospect of a split Leave vote next time. The deeper fear is that Farage himself will return to centre stage, triggering a much larger split on the right.
Yet the current main threat to Tory prospects comes not on the right flank, but in the centre ground. Labour has risen to polling heights unseen since Blair led the party, a surge driven by collapsing confidence in the government’s basic competence. With the fear of Corbyn no longer holding voters back, discontented moderates have begun defecting in droves from the Conservatives to Labour. This is ominous for the incumbent, as each government to opposition switcher counts double – one blue vote less and one red vote more. Conservative efforts to raise the spectre of Labour radicalism have failed to stem this tide. While those who are highly engaged judge the parties based on past associations and behaviour, swing voters simply blame the government when things go wrong.
As troubles engulf the government, it is no wonder Labour has opted to stay off stage. The current political climate is close to ideal for the opposition. Voters are now furious with a government presiding over falling wages, rising prices and failing public services. The 2019 dream of “levelling up” has died, and with it the illusion Johnson weaved that his would be a different kind of Tory government. The reality of yet more austerity welds this government to its pre-Brexit predecessors. “It’s time for a change” is the most dangerous sentiment for any incumbent, and with focus groups complaining of problems left to fester despite 12 years in charge, it is a mood on the rise.
“Scrape the barnacles off the boat” was long Sir Lynton Crosby’s strategy for Tory campaigns. Now it is Labour’s mantra. The party has adopted the Crosbyan credo of relentless message discipline, seeking to duck or defuse any conflict which distracts attention from government failures. Labour’s soaring poll leads seem to vindicate this approach.
Yet a focus on channelling discontent is not without risks. For one thing, complaints may lose their sting if conditions improve. Keir Starmer has been flattered this year by comparison with a scandal-tainted Johnson and a chaotic Liz Truss; the calmer and cleaner Sunak will present a tougher challenge in months to come. Tory poll numbers have already recovered from their Truss low ebb, and may rise further if economic conditions improve before polling day.
The other risk is that Labour misses the opportunity provided by crisis by failing to articulate a credible new course. Voicing voter frustration works well at midterm, but polls typically tighten as election day approaches and attention shifts to choosing the next government. Focus groups already feature complaints that Labour’s intentions are unclear. Such complaints will grow louder as polling day nears. Brexit campaigners promised change. That promise has failed. But for Labour to succeed, it must offer change voters can believe in once again.
Robert Ford is professor of political science at Manchester University. He is the co-author, with Matthew Goodwin, of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain.