The Decline and Collapse of the Conservative Party
Mark McGeoghegan analyses the Tory collapse, the Labour polling lead and what it means for Scottish politics.
The electoral shift against the Conservative Party has come, as these shifts tend to, incrementally and then all at once. Gradual decline in Conservative voting intention through a series of scandals under Boris Johnson has given way to collapse under Liz Truss.
That collapse was predictable. The moment the pound crashed a significant shift against the Tories in the sentiment and intentions of voters was inevitable.
But the scale of the shift has been surprising. Before the ‘fiscal event’, Labour was leading by high single digits to low double digits. Some outliers were beginning to show Labour leads of around 17 points, but these were in a small minority.
At the time of writing, we have had eight polls with fieldwork conducted entirely after the mini budget. 17 points is Labour’s smallest lead, but larger than any other lead they’ve held in two-decades. A YouGov poll giving Labour a 33-point lead, and 54% of the vote, sent the commentariat into a frenzy of speculation over the Prime Minister’s future.
The average Labour lead across these polls is not quite the 33 points recorded by YouGov, but still a substantial 24 points, with 50% of the vote to the Tories’ 26%.
Labour has not polled this well since the mid-1990s, ahead of Blair’s New Labour sweeping the Tories away in the 1997 landslide. If a general election were held tomorrow, the New Statesman’s Britain Predicts election model projects that Labour would win an enormous 262 seat majority. Kwasi Kwarteng would lose his seat, and Liz Truss would be in a tough fight to hold her own. An election on these terms would be cataclysmic for the Tories.
A general election will not, however, be held tomorrow. Facing such dire numbers, no Prime Minister with a shred of sanity would move to an early general election.
Rather, Truss will stick it out and hope that, by some miracle, the UK economy grows at an appreciable rate between now and 2024 – at which point, she will claim that her plan worked and seek to reap the political rewards.
Even without such a miracle, the polls will likely tighten again in the coming months. A large proportion of 2019 Tory voters have not switched to Labour but say they don’t know who they would vote for. Many of them will come back to the Conservatives over the course of an election campaign.
And, typically, governments tend to recoup some of the support they lose during a term as the public begin to look at the opposition more critically (and as that opposition comes under intense assault from the right-wing press).
At points, New Labour led in the polls by more than 40 points. In the end, they won by 13. But a Tory comeback would have to be an unbelievably strong to deprive Labour of largest-party status, and Labour’s path to a majority is clear.
What does this mean for Scotland? We do not have a Scotland-only poll, and the Scottish subsamples in UK polls are unreliable.
But let’s consider the possibilities. With this kind of collapse UK-wide, it’s likely that we will see movement away from the Scottish Conservatives to other unionist parties. But it is the SNP who are the likeliest beneficiaries. They came second in every constituency won by the Scottish Tories in 2019, and further splitting the unionist vote in those seats would be far more likely to help the SNP take them than either Scottish Labour or the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
In the few seats held by Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Tory switchers will shore up those majorities. But there are few seats in which there are enough Tory voters to help either party make gains from the SNP.
As the Fabian Society rightly identified, to win seats in Scotland Labour needs to beat the SNP. A Tory collapse at Westminster will not help them achieve this.
In the immediacy, the SNP and the independence movement are strengthened by the mini budget. As I have written elsewhere, the politics play to the independence movement’s strengths by deepening both the divide between Edinburgh and London in policy terms, and the sense in Scotland that Westminster cannot be trusted to act in Scotland’s interest.
But in the longer term, a Tory collapse in England could also weaken the SNP, at least in terms of electoral and parliamentary politics.
If there is an independence referendum in October 2023, and the pro-independence camp wins, there is almost zero chance that the UK government will recognise the result of the vote. The SNP’s only electoral or parliamentary avenue to secure concessions of any kind would be through negotiation in a hung parliament.
The same goes for a general election in which pro-independence parties successfully secure a majority of the vote.
Setting aside whether Labour would or wouldn’t do a deal that helps the SNP further its cause, without a hung parliament in which Labour needs SNP votes to govern, there is no parliamentary or electoral route to independence.
A sustained Tory collapse will be publicly welcomed by the SNP and would likely help them win seats in 2024 and retain power in Scotland beyond that, while doing little to help Scottish Labour. It could also, in the longer term, be the biggest setback for the independence movement since 2014.