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Broadly toxic

There is an oft-repeated axiom that governments which preside over economic downturns are turfed out at the following election.  This was true of John Major’s Tories, who never recovered from the “Black Wednesday” crisis at the beginning of their administration.  It was also true for Gordon Brown’s Labour Party – the hapless Brown taking the helm just in time to reap the fallout from the 2008 crash.  And it also looks likely to be the final nail in the coffin of Rishi Sunak’s Tories as they reap the bitter fruit of lockdown and self-harming energy sanctions.

Look more closely though, and the axiom doesn’t hold.  Margaret Thatcher, for example, presided over the worst downturn in living memory between 1980 and 1982, during which more than two million high-paying manufacturing jobs were lost, leaving one-in-ten British workers on the dole.  And yet, in June 1983, Thatcher scored her biggest election victory, picking up seats that had been solidly Labour for generations.

Thatcher bucked the recession-rejection trend for two reasons.  First, she was the unlikely beneficiary of victory in the Falklands War – a victory won with ships that she had already condemned to the scrap yard.  Second, the Labour Party had split, with disgruntled former ministers creating the new Social Democratic Party.  Although the SDP failed to win more than a handful of seats in the 1983 general election, they picked up enough Labour voters to prevent Labour winning seats that would otherwise have been a shoe-in.

We might conclude then, that while presiding over an economic crisis is a necessary condition for governments to be thrown out, it is not a sufficient condition.  The presence of a strong third party is also common in elections that governments lose.  One reason why Blair won such a big majority in 1997 is that the Liberal Democrat Party was in the ascendancy – causing the Tories to lose seats to both parties.  And the LibDems went on to do the same to Labour in 2010, when a big swing from Labour to the LibDems provided Cameron’s Tories with enough seats to form the coalition government.

Harold Wilson’s narrow win in 1964 points to two additional reasons why governments lose.  In 1961, Britain’s Minister for War (we named the job properly in those days) embarked on an affair with a “model” who just happened to also be knocking off a certain Captain Yevgeny Ivanov, nominally the Soviet Union’s naval attaché and likely one of its leading KGB agents in the UK.  This true-life saga had all of the makings of a Forsyth or Le Carré novel.  And when the story broke into the mainstream media in 1963 it resulted in a heady mix of public revulsion and fascination.

This was the very beginning of the “swinging sixties,” and while London may have been emerging as a liberal and tolerant metropolis, wider Britain remained in the conservative straitjacket of pre-war morality.  So that, in a sense, the Minister – John Profumo – and the government more widely, were seen to have behaved in a manner wholly at odds with the behaviour and moral outlook of their constituents.  By the end of the year, Harold MacMillan had resigned as Prime Minister and Tories were narrowly defeated in the October 1964 general election.

Scandal surrounded John Major’s government too.  A year before a general election had to be called, the “cash for questions” scandal broke.  It turned out that Tory MPs had been taking bribes from lobbyists to table questions in the House of Commons – a process which is meant to allow MPs to raise matters of concern to their constituents.  The most notorious example involved envelopes stuffed with cash being left in the public toilet of a London railway station, giving the scandal a seedy air.  And again, the scandal demonstrated a huge gulf between the behaviour of MPs and what was considered acceptable to their constituents.

It happened again in 2009, when independent journalist Heather Brook got hold of a compact disc containing details of the expenses being claimed by MPs.  Previously, the Speaker’s office had responded contemptuously to requests for this information, providing it in a redacted form which prevented anyone from seeing what was being claimed.  This prompted whistle-blowers who had seen the full extent of the corruption to leak the CD, the contents of which were carefully drip-fed to the wider public by the Daily Telegraph.  Again, MPs’ behaviour was completely out of step with that expected by the wider public – something exacerbated by some of the worst offenders claiming that anyone in their position would have done the same thing.  In the end, six ministers were forced to resign, and eight MPs were prosecuted and jailed.

Not entirely unconnected to these various scandals is the length of time that each of those governments had been in office.  By 1964, the Tories had been in office for 13 years.  And by 1997, 18 years.  By 2010, Labour had been governing for 13 years.  This trend has led some to wonder whether we might be better off having a 10-year rather than a 5-year period between elections, since this is what the public generally vote for and – more importantly – it would allow governments to focus on long-term policy rather than electioneering.  The corollary to this though, is that after a decade or so, politicians simply outstay their welcome.  There comes a point where the electorate is so fed up with the incumbent government that nothing the government does will prevent them being thrown out as soon as an election is called.

It is with these four factors in mind that we should look at the current situation here in the UK.    At the time of writing it is still possible that we may have an earlyish election before Parliament breaks up for the summer recess.  More likely though, the election will be in the autumn – probably after the party conferences (which can be used to launch campaigns) but before the clocks go back.  By law though, there doesn’t have to be a general election until 28 January 2025 – although the Tories would not be thanked for forcing the population to endure a Christmas election campaign.  We should also bear in mind that when governments are ahead in the polls – Thatcher in 1987, Blair in 2001, and (somewhat recklessly as it transpired) May in 2017 – they tend to go for early elections.  Those governments that lose – Callaghan in 1979, Major in 1997, and Brown in 2010 – tend to cling on to the death in the increasingly desperate hope that something will turn up to change their fortunes (although it seems more likely that this refusal to go merely enrages a hostile electorate even more).

But of course, Sunak – and his campaign team – are painfully aware that all four of the factors set out above are in play.  Moreover, today’s examples are especially damaging.  Forget the recent scandals of MPs sending dick-pics to unknown WhatsApp contacts who turn out to be blackmailers, or junior ministers embezzling party funds to pay off certain unpleasant underworld characters.  The big scandal for the current government was revealed in the winter of 2021.  As I wrote at the time:

“It looks increasingly likely that Britain will have a new Prime Minister by this time next year.  This is in part, because the illegal Christmas parties last year have cut through to public opinion in a way in which the sleaze stories and the mishandling of the pandemic failed to do – largely because nobody seriously believes that Labour would have handled the pandemic any differently, and partly because sleaze is common among MPs of all parties.  But thus far at least, there are no reports of opposition MPs partying during lockdown.

“The collapse in support for the Tories in the polls, the revolt of Tory backbenchers over vaccine passports, and the disastrous loss of the North Shropshire by-election have left Johnson’s premiership hanging by a thread.  And the latest polling suggests that Johnson would lose his own seat, along with the Tories majority in parliament, if an election were held today.”

Senior Tory ministers – including then Chancellor Sunak – partying while the population was held under house arrest at pain of fines and imprisonment – was a far greater breach of trust than any of the previous scandals which have caused governments to lose subsequent elections.  It is not just that so many people missed out on Christmas and New Year celebrations or that lockdowns were particularly difficult for some, such as parents with young children or people living in bedsits.  It was the pain of not being with loved ones as they died, of being unable to access medical care, of children being denied education – and being subjected to conditions almost guaranteed to result in anxiety and depression.  But perhaps worst of all, it was the shattering of the belief, held by so many up until that moment, that they were doing the right thing to prevent the spread of as deadly disease, which ended all trust between electorate and government.  And it is notable that prior to “partygate” the Tories won every election, but since, they have gone from loss to loss.

This alone, would probably have guaranteed that the government would lose the coming election.  But the breach of trust has been accompanied by the worst economic downturn since the 2008 crash, as rising prices have seriously undermined people’s living standards.  Indeed, while the establishment media have done the government the favour of focussing on a handful of unionised workers who have managed to secure above inflation pay increases, the majority have seen their adjusted-for-inflation pay decline – the median wage falling below its 2008 level.  As with 2008, the economic storm – which I would argue is only beginning – is global (or at least western) in nature.  Nevertheless, the UK government contributed to the crisis by instigating unplanned lockdowns and then by creating billions of new pounds without considering the inflationary impact.  And then – again without forethought – the UK government joined the rush to impose sanctions on critical energy and mineral supplies without which the UK economy would struggle to function – the end of our ability to make steel being the most damaging consequence.  Rather like the now doomed – because sanctions also killed the European wind turbine industry – net zero project, things might not have been as bad if government had been honest about the cost.  Although it is more likely that government didn’t even bother asking what the potential costs might be.

Nor has government’s handling of the economic downturn done anything for its electoral fortunes.  This may sound flippant, but it is actually the product of two related forms of inequality which are particularly pronounced in the UK.  First, and most obvious, is a class divide symbolised by our billionaire Prime Minister, between a largely sheltered professional-managerial class and an increasingly hard-pressed majority.  Second, is the geographical gulf between the few remaining prosperous enclaves in Versailles-on-Thames and in the leafy suburbs of the top-tier university metropolises and the increasingly depressed ex-industrial, rundown seaside, and small-town regions where most of the people live.  The harder these divisions have become, the more difficult communication between the classes is.  So that, to give just one example, when some tone deaf government minister proclaims that a 0.1% growth in GDP (which is in any case no more than some additional borrowing) means that “the economy has turned a corner,” the majority – who are still paying more for essentials like housing, energy, and food – understand the impossibility of even communicating their needs to anyone who might do something to alleviate them.

One consequence of this has come from former Tory voters embracing the more openly conservative Reform UK.  The Tories biggest weakness in this direction is the sheer volume of immigration – which Boris Johnson pledged to reduce in his 2019 campaign – which is increasing at some 700,000 per year.  And while Rishi Sunak tries to divert attention to the relatively small number of people arriving on small boats (many of whom end up in modern slavery) and his insane attempt to send them to Rwanda, the impact of mass legal migration on such things as housing, GP appointments, school places, and low-paid employment is of far greater concern to those Tory voters now switching to Reform.

Because of Britain’s antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system, Reform is unlikely to win many – if any – seats at the coming election.  What they will do however, is to split the conservative vote… doing to the Tories what the SDP did to Labour in 1983.  Even if they didn’t though, as Electoral Calculus explain, sufficient former Tory voters are switching to third parties, directly to Labour, and giving up voting entirely, to cause a big Tory loss at the coming election anyway.  As Electoral Calculus CEO Martin Baxter put it, “the Tories are now broad-spectrum repellent.”

The problem this raises for Sunak’s campaign team – who are guaranteed to play dirty in a last-ditch attempt to cling to office – is that whichever direction they pitch their offering to, will see voters at the opposite side jump ship.  That is, the current return to the default Tory position of attacking poor people – a position that, interestingly, Reform UK are playing down – will see more liberal Tory voters defect to the Greens, the LibDems, or directly to Labour.  But, of course, if the campaign team lean the other way, then they risk losing even more voters to Reform.

Overarching all of this is the fact that, the government has been in office for too long and is now at odds with nappy theory.  Ministers like Michael Gove, Grant Shapps, Jeremy Hunt, and Lord Snooty himself, have been on the front benches since 2010 – the cards may have been regularly shuffled but the deck is dog-eared and worn out.  At this stage in the game, a majority of the electorate finds itself in agreement with words first spoken by Oliver Cromwell:

You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing.  In the name of God, go!

Sunak would do well to heed them.

As you made it to the end…

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