Despite the end of January and the first signs of spring creeping in, it feels like the political mood of the country has changed little since Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister in October last year.
The Conservatives are still floundering in the polls which indicate that Labour is set to win a majority at the next General Election, while the Lib Dems have seen little momentum off the back of some political moments that should’ve gifted them an advantage in the race to become the third party at Westminster. With the next General Election certain to take place within the next 22 months, Party HQs will be considering how they can change, and in some circumstances, maintain their political fortunes.
The Conservative Party
Speaking to Conservative Party MPs after his election as the party's leader, Rishi Sunak told his MP that the party must “adapt or die”. Despite this declaration, the party remain in dire straits, and it is difficult to imagine them successfully remaining the largest party after the general election, let alone maintaining their electoral majority.
Despite hailing himself as an antidote to the sleaze and incompetency that undid his two predecessors, three months into his premiership, Rishi Sunak is still mired in scandal. Not only has he been personally humiliated by being issued with another fixed penalty notice, after being caught not wearing a seatbelt, but he has already had to sack two senior members of his government in Gavin Williamson, and most recently Nadhim Zahawi.
The scandal surrounding Zahawi feels far from over, and it has done little to improve public faith in Rishi Sunak. A new Ipsos survey found that only 32% of voters believe he has what it takes to be a good prime minister, down ten points since November. The Conservative Party will likely be pinning their hopes on three key scenarios: Rishi Sunak’s personal popularity bouncing back to the levels it was at the height of the pandemic, a dramatic turnaround in the state of the economy, and some kind of major setback for the Labour Party. Despite still not having anywhere near the personal popularity of Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak is still polling as more popular than his party, and perceptions about his competency on the economy have yet to be disproven. That being said, it is difficult to see how the Conservative Party can turn their fortunes around at this stage, even if they wanted to.
From a policy point of view, the year ahead looks to be one of firefighting as opposed to opportunities for political innovation. The cost-of-living crisis, strikes across the public sector and an NHS at breaking point means it is hard to see where Rishi Sunak will find the time to establish a fresh image for the Conservative Party, no matter how palatable he hopes his personal image is. Several key players have already abandoned ship, with high profile MPs such as Chis Skidmore and Dehenna Davidson choosing to stand down at the next election, there is perhaps a sense of fatigue within a Conservative party that has run out of steam, ideas and political fight.
The Labour Party
In contrast to the Conservative Party, the Labour Party has entered 2023 with an air of confidence and swagger, and understandably so. Polls suggest the Party would receive around 45% of the vote, if there was a general election tomorrow.
Nevertheless, an electoral success still feels some way away, no more so than in the eyes of its veteran supporters, many of whom bear scars from past false dawns. The Party has a well-earned reputation for its capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (1992 and 2015 being prime examples), and members will be surveying the year ahead with bated breath, searching for potential banana skins.
Such anxieties are triggered by rumours regarding the integrity of Labour's lead: suggestions that it disguises the Party's inability to turn the dial with swing voters, the so-called 'Red Wallers' who delivered Boris Johnson's landslide. Perhaps more telling, research on opinion toward Keir Starmer reveals a lack of perceived political DNA: yes, he is understood to be the man who exorcised the figures and ideals that underpinned the Party's last election failure, he is also not one of the wine-stained fixed-penalty-bearing Johnsonians who eschewed lockdown rules, but as a political figure, many still struggle to attach much else to the Labour Leader.
If the Party is to translate voter apathy into action at the ballot box, Starmer knows he must synthesise trademark policies with his already strong attack lines. But, hitherto, he has been reticent to offer alternatives, preferring to reprehend from the moral high-ground. His waiting game is forgivable: Labour's path to a manifesto is typically barbed with the potential to unleash media storms and reopen old wounds. What's more, it's no simple task to transition from forensic, judicious realism, to the can-do, blue-sky idealism that more often transports an election victory. There are boundless pressing crises to which Starmer must provide solutions. Some, like industrial action, are more likely to flareup internal division, while others, like the energy price crisis or Brexit related trade problems, threaten to plague a prospective premier, should they refuse to acknowledge them now.
The Liberal Democrats
History tells us that an ailing Conservative Party and a thriving Labour Party should be good news for the Liberal Democrats. In 2005, they secured 18% of the popular vote, whereas 2015 saw their share of the vote plummet to 8%. Surprisingly, despite some impressive by-elections wins and several defections from Labour and the Conservatives during the Brexit negotiations, the Lib Dems are showing little sign of getting back to where they were at the peak of the Kennedy and Clegg eras.
Looking ahead to 2023, the Lib Dems will likely focus their attention on the local elections, the nature of which is extremely well suited to their style of campaigning. They will be focusing their resources on local authorities that corelate with the 20 or so seats that they realistically hope to win at the next General Election. Based on current polling, the Lib Dems are forecast to be at 27 MPs after the next election, which would only be a net gain of 13, a disappointing result for a partly that was in government less than a decade ago.
Whilst Keir Stammer continues to seek to operate a more centrist approach to politics, the Lib Dems are increasingly struggling to establish their niche. Traditionally pitching themselves as the party of the protest vote, the Lib Dems are finding stiff competition in the Green Party, who had a very successful round of local election results last year and have been steadily chipping away at Lib Dem support, especially amongst students and those traditionally aligned with the centre left, who are not yet ready to forgive the Lib Dems for the coalition years.
Seemingly without a clear purpose, and only 14 MPs to raise their profile, the Lib Dems will be looking to spend the next 11 months bedding in their existing support and distancing themselves as much as possible from the Conservatives whilst staying quiet on any issue that might be deemed controversial (i.e. industrial action) and pushing hard on local issues such a sewage and ambulance shortages, two issues which have proved the basis of their successful by-election victories of 21/22. Undoubtedly, they will also have their ears to the ground ready to enact their (in)famous by-election machine should the opportunity to win a “safe” tory seat present itself.
The Year Ahead
After 13 years in Government, five Prime Ministers, three referendums and a pandemic, many Conservative MPs might fancy the chance to reset their political career on the opposite side of the chamber. For those who have already accepted that they will lose their seat, they may have privately decided that it will be far easier to find a job now then straight after a General Election, when MPs who have been voted out will not be a rarity. By contrast, full of swagger at the moment, Keir Starmer's Labour knows it must address the big issues this year, as it begins to refine its election-ready identity. The ominous, looming question will be whether the Party is willing or able to do so with quite the same level of conviction.
A week is a long time in politics, so it hard to predict what the state of British politics will be, but at the moment the Conservative Party look tired and defeated, and Labour is ready to pounce.
by Elen Young (Associate) and George Pugh-Thorogood (Associate)