A Second Major: Sunak's Quiet Revolution

A Second Major: Sunak's Quiet Revolution

. 9 min read

‘Is a Labour win over the Conservatives inevitable in 2024?’, ‘Extremely difficult’ for Tories to win next election,’ and ‘meet the Tories quietly hoping to lose the next election’ are all some of the headlines that have been published in the UK over the past year. In short, the Conservative Party, the most electorally successful party in democratic history and second-oldest political party in the world, who have been in power for 13 years spanning five Prime Ministers, is conventionally seen as a lost cause.

The argument for the Conservatives’ electoral doom goes something like this. The Conservatives are plagued by scandal, most infamously Boris Johnson’s lockdown-breaking Partygate, and are seen as the party of sleaze. They led Britain to the brink of economic catastrophe under former Prime Minister Liz Truss. In the longer term, the 13 years of Conservative rule are seen as having left Britain stagnant and internationally irrelevant. And, above all, they are seen as lacking a vision for what a new Britain needs. In short, the Conservatives speak to themselves as they lead the country to ruin, and the British people have rightly had enough.

This unpopularity can be seen in the polling. At the height of Liz Truss’ tenure as Prime Minister, a YouGov poll found a 37 percent lead for Labour while a PeoplePolling poll found a 39 percent lead for Labour and placed the Tories at just 14 percent. Even worse, YouGov found that just 10 percent of Brits approved of Truss, making her as unpopular as Vladimir Putin. These numbers were sustained and consistent. They are also unprecedented in modern British polling history. These numbers suggest that while Truss and Johnson dragged the Conservative Party down, the Conservatives themselves are being held responsible for putting them into office. It is very difficult in the UK to distinguish between the party and its leader since the two are functionally the same. Hence, the Conservatives are being held accountable for enabling Johnson’s Partygate and Truss’ Budget.

The consequences of such a defeat would be astonishing. Predicting seat numbers is quite difficult and uses multilevel regression with poststratification (MRP) models. To put the current situation in context, it's worth bearing in mind that in November 2021, before Partygate broke, the Conservatives were expected to get 301 seats to Labour’s 257, just shy of a majority (326). When Truss came into office, the Conservatives were predicted to get 230 to Labour’s 336, which, while a defeat, is certainly recoverable and not catastrophic by any means.

By the last week of Liz Truss’ premiership, MRP models predicted the Conservatives would get just 64 seats out of 650, half their previous lowest in 1906, while the Labour Party would get 518. Such a defeat would likely end the modern Conservative Party as we know it overnight. Most of its leadership would lose their seats, and the party would be placed in a position where winning an election would take decades, if it could be achieved at all. So, after just 45 days (the shortest tenure in British history), Truss resigned allowing her former rival Rishi Sunak to take over. Sunak’s task was explicitly defined not as winning the election but as ensuring the Conservatives survived it.

And that is what makes Rishi Sunak’s time as Prime Minister so astonishing. In April, his tenure passed the six-month mark. In that time, he has restored the Conservatives’ electoral chances through a combination of implementing sound policies and reducing the tirade of scandal. Contrary to popular belief, this success puts him in a good position to ensure that the Conservatives not only exist after the next election, but can win it.

It’s the Sun Wot Won It

John Major welcomes Bill Clinton to Downing Street, 1995. Picture from the Clinton Presidential Library.

The UK has been here before. In 1990, the country had had a Conservative government for 11 years, and the economy was in a deep recession. The Conservatives were gripped by internal division around how to approach the EU’s predecessor, the EEC, and by a string of unpopular policies, particularly the so-called Poll Tax. By November 1990, the month before Thatcher resigned, the Conservatives had slumped to being 21 percent behind Labour in the polls. The Conservatives were seen as doomed.

And so the Conservatives deposed Thatcher amid acrimonious circumstances, and put in place her Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major (the same job Rishi Sunak held prior to his ascension to PM), as the new Prime Minister. Major was a quiet, bureaucratic, hardworking politician with a love of cricket who had avoided controversy despite holding a slew of high offices. In short, he was seen as inoffensive by all. Major had some successes. Most notably, he was praised for foreign policy successes from the Fall of the USSR to the swift conclusion of the First Gulf War. Major also abandoned the Poll Tax in favor of the Council Tax in 1991. Nevertheless, the recession continued and though the polls gradually narrowed, the Labour Party maintained a two to three percent lead, and a Labour victory was assumed. Even the exit poll predicted a completely hung Parliament, where neither party had a majority of seats.

Hence the surprise of all when the Conservatives won by 7.6 percent on election day and formed a fourth majority government. Major won more votes in absolute terms than any election in British history before or since. They lost a few seats from Thatcher’s 1987 win five years prior, but were able to continue in office for another five years. The tabloid newspaper The Sun took great pride in claiming to have won the election by endorsing the Conservatives the day before the election. Nevertheless, there is a lot we can learn from this election that can help us to understand Sunak’s odds 30 years later.

Major won for five reasons. First, he was perceived as a likable, quiet, inoffensive, intelligent, and hardworking leader putting an end to the chaos of his predecessor. Second, he was fortunate enough to have a successful foreign policy record in office. Third, he put an end to the most unpopular and ideological of his predecessor’s policies. Fourth, he successfully portrayed the Labour Party as weak on the economy and immigration in spite of his party’s own failures in these areas. And, fifth, he came into office amid economic collapse, and, though the recession continued throughout his time in charge, recovery had begun by the time the election was called.

The reason this historical case study is important is that we can see Sunak making the same moves, and the polling improving similarly. Hence, it is plausible that he too will succeed despite being written off by the media.

Sunak’s Quiet Revolution

Rishi Sunak visits Border Force in Dover. Photograph by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street.

We can see these same five approaches in the Sunak strategy to retain power. First, he is personally considered likable, diligent, and respected. Time described him as “a safe pair of hands” and quoted Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, as calling him “more pragmatic than Johnson.” When he came into office, Sunak committed to “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level,” an approach that contrasted from a common critique of the Johnson and Truss ministries, and his commitment to this has been seen through the firing of colleagues who break the Ministerial Code (again, a shift from Johnson).

In November, he fired Gavin Williamson, the former Chief Whip, for bullying. In January, the party chair Nadhim Zahawi was fired for covering up tax evasion. And, in April, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab was fired for bullying. The Tory party may continue to have scandals, but in such high level sackings (particularly Raab, his closest supporter), Sunak has demonstrated a commitment to professionalism not seen since Theresa May.

Second, Sunak has had a relatively successful foreign policy. He has not been fortunate enough to have victory like the First Gulf War fall into his lap, but in the Windsor Framework he has won a major political victory that looks set to settle the issue of the Northern Irish Protocol. Sunak won a slew of economic concessions from the EU that will make trade across the Irish Sea far simpler and cheaper through the introduction of Green and Red Lanes, and by empowering the Northern Irish Assembly through the Stormont Break. Crucially, he also outmaneuvered the hardliners like Johnson and Truss, who were left in a group of just 22 Conservative MPs to rebel by voting against the framework. This strengthened Sunak’s standing in the Tory party on the crucial issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe.

Third, Sunak seeks to end the more unpopular policies of his predecessor, Liz Truss. Not only was Truss’ budget so economically disastrous that it was nicknamed the Kamikwasi budget after her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. But it was also ideologically unpopular, as policies like abolishing the highest rate of income tax for the wealthiest were seen as giving money to the rich amid an economic meltdown. Hence a key part of Sunak’s strategy upon taking power was to reverse these unpopular policies with his first budget statement.

Fourth, Sunak has sought to portray the Labour Party as weak on the issue of the economy and immigration. When he came to power, Suank made five pledges: “halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, reduce NHS waiting lists, and stop the boats.” Four of these five promises address the economy and immigration. These are deliberately light on detail—the only measurable one is inflation which is expected to quarter to 2.5 percent by a 2024 election regardless of Sunak’s policies. But when Sunak succeeds in delivering his pledges, as he presumably intends to do, he will portray it as delivering for Britain where the Labour Party has not.

Finally, Sunak is gambling that the economy will recover before the next election. Sunak will hope that the economy will be in recovery from the issues of the past year by the time that the next election is called. In March 2023, the Office for Budget Responsibility improved its outlook for the UK from when Sunak initially took over. Not only is inflation expected to fall to 2.9 percent by the end of 2023, but the short term damage to the UK economy over the next year will be far less bad. This will likely leave Sunak in a far better political position for 2024 elections.

Playing from the Major playbook: will Sunak succeed?

Rishi Sunak is interviewed on This Morning. Photograph by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

All of this suggests that Sunak has a clear strategy to win the next election, grounded in the reality on the ground and in the successes of Major in a similar situation. The question is whether it will be enough. Afterall, Major inherited a 21 percent deficit in the polls, while Sunak inherited a 39 percent deficit, nearly twice as bad.

The polling evidence is mixed. The Conservatives have narrowed the lead to about 15 percent, and the trajectory continues to be positive even after six months. All of which would suggest that the strategy is working and that if the Conservatives stick to their guns over the next 18 months, with a little luck they can replicate 1992. However, there are some warning signs. The resignation of Thatcher immediately swung the polls significantly towards the Tories—by the time Major was appointed he actually had an 11 percent lead. That has not happened in this case. In fact, Sunak’s personal appeal seems to be waning. He had a 0 percent favorability rating when he became Prime Minister, but this has slipped to a negative 20 percent favorability rating in April.

The recent Local Elections are a perfect case in point of this. On May fourth, the UK held votes for many of the town and country councilors. The Conservatives lost over 1000 seats, and Labour became the largest party in local government for the first time in 20 years. This is conventionally viewed as a catastrophe for the Conservatives. However, a closer look suggests positive news. Labour won 35 percent to the Conservatives’ 26 percent, a gap of just 9 percent (far below the 15 to 20 percent that polling has suggested). If it were a general election, Labour would have won 298 seats to the Conservatives 238 (leaving neither with a majority). This suggests that the Conservatives are already in a better position than when Liz Truss came to power. It is worth remembering that the Conservatives lost over 1000 seats in the local elections a year before the 1992 general election. If, as then, the Conservatives continue to improve their polling position, then this suggests that next year’s general election is in fact eminently winnable.

So it is not all plain sailing by any stretch of the imagination. But Sunak is pursuing a tried and tested strategy, with some success, and therefore the automatic assumption that he will lose the next election is not as sound as it might at first seem.

Cover picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street.

Theo J. Harper

Theo is Director of Digital Media and a Senior Editor at the HIR. He is from the UK studying History, and is interested in diplomatic theory and history as well as the Middle East and South-East Asia.