The coalition of voters that delivered the Tories a big majority at the last election is crumbling, according to dramatic new evidence that the party is losing support in key battlegrounds across England.
The findings, revealed in a special poll of 2019 Tory voters for the Observer, comes as Rishi Sunak faces a series of competing and contradictory demands from warring Tory factions ahead of the party’s conference in Manchester.
With the prime minister also attempting to breathe new life into his government during his first conference as leader, MPs in “red wall” seats will present him with a plea to “turbocharge” the northern economy after the HS2 fiasco, while figures on the right are to present their own manifesto this week. Liz Truss is also set to demand lower taxes and a smaller state.
It comes as exclusive polling for the Observer reveals that a third of those who voted Conservative in 2019 now intend to switch to other parties. It suggests that the Tories have lost voters in crucial areas – their southern heartlands and “red wall” seats in the Midlands.
The special poll, conducted by Opinium, finds that 34% of Conservative voters are currently intending to vote for other parties. Voters who backed the Conservatives in 2019 in the Midlands and south are now the least likely to stick with the party at the next general election – only 61% and 60% respectively will stay with the party. One in five voters who backed the Tories in 2019 in the south of England said they had switched to Labour or the Lib Dems.
The findings come after a year in which Sunak has attempted to calm party infighting. However, splits are set to re-emerge this weekend. Many factions will try to use what is likely to be the last Tory conference before the election to pull the party in their direction.
A group of rightwing Tory MPs that includes the ex-leader Iain Duncan Smith and former cabinet ministers Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Redwood will also table a rival manifesto, demanding that Sunak pull the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights, cut taxes for families, small businesses and entrepreneurs and halve the number of visas for migrant workers and foreign students and their families, in order to slash immigration.
The Tory MP and co-chair of the New Conservatives group Danny Kruger said radical action was needed to recreate the wide coalition of supporters that had allowed his party to win an 80-seat majority in 2019. “If we hope to rebuild our 2019 coalition we need to be bold and these polling-proved policies would show the electorate that we will always stand for their values,” he said.
On Monday, more than 30 Conservative MPs in the Northern Research Group, who fear they may lose their seats because red wall voters feel betrayed, will publish their own radical “manifesto” for the north calling for huge investment in public services in the region, and the transfer of more political and tax-raising powers from Whitehall.
Sunak is also facing pressure from his predecessors. Truss is due to head a “Great British growth rally” on Monday, calling for the Conservatives “to be the party of business again” by reducing corporate taxes and shrinking the state. “Ahead of this year’s autumn statement, we must make the Conservative party the party of business once again, by getting corporation tax back down to 19%,” she is expected to say.
“This is how we make Britain grow again. It is free businesses that will get us there, not the Treasury, not the government and not the state.”
Truss’s government attempted to keep corporation tax at 19%, but the plans were ripped up in the wake of the market turmoil that followed her plan for growth.
Theresa May yesterday became the third former Tory prime minister to criticise the government’s apparent change of heart on HS2, saying more rail capacity was badly needed to serve the north-west, and that halting it in north-west London rather than completing it to Euston, would cause huge disruption to commuters.
Some Tories have been buoyed by a flurry of policy announcements and leaked proposals from No 10 that have included the scaling-back of HS2, an overhaul of A-levels, new anti-smoking measures and a “plan for motorists”. However, others see it as wildly incoherent. “The quiet majority, out of respect for the prime minister, haven’t yet said anything as we lurch from one peculiar populist stance to another,” said one senior MP.
One former cabinet minister said: “What is our narrative? These things individually may be quite popular and eyecatching, but the fundamental question that we all have to answer on the doorstep is why would you give us five more years? I don’t think these policies, in isolation, answer that question.”
Today, in an attempt to show commitment to levelling up, the prime minister will announce a £1bn plan to give dozens of towns across the country special endowment funds of £20m over 10 years to invest in local projects. Announcing the plan, Sunak said: “Towns are the place most us call home and where most of us go to work. But politicians have always taken towns for granted and focused on cities.
“The result is the half-empty high streets, run-down shopping centres and antisocial behaviour that undermine many towns’ prosperity and hold back people’s opportunity – and without a new approach these problems will only get worse.”
According to Institute for Fiscal Studies projections, recent increases to council spending “far from fully reverse” substantial cuts made to local government in the first half of the 2010s, when local government real-terms per capita spending fell by more than 20%.
The Opinium poll for the Observer of more than 3,000 voters – which includes over 900 2019 Tory voters – contains mixed news for Sunak and his party. On the one hand, it shows Labour’s lead has been cut to 10 points (down five compared with a fortnight ago). Labour is on 39 points (down two) while the Tories are on 29 (up three), suggesting Sunak’s blitz of announcements, including rowing back on net-zero commitments and floating plans to abolish inheritance tax, may have had positive effects.
Opinium tends to give Labour smaller leads than other pollsters as it assumes more people who previously voted Tory but currently say they “don’t know” could return to the Conservative fold at a general election.
But on the downside among 2019 Tory voters, just 66% say they will back the Tories again, 12% will switch to Labour, 13% to Reform, 5% to the Lib Dems and 3% to the Greens. Less than half of the 2019 Tory backers (48%) think Conservative-led governments since 2010 have been successful, while 40% think they have been unsuccessful. The issues they regard as most important, such as the NHS, are those on which most believe the party they backed has performed worst.