Conservative Position Not Too Disastrous

by Prof Richard Rose, 28 April 2023

After months of public opinion polls indicating the Conservatives threatened with losing more than four-fifths of their MPs in the most disastrous result of a major party in almost a century, the Conservative government of Rishi Sunak government has seen a bounce from the bottom of the hole his predecessors had dug the party into.

The April opinion polls indicate the Tories would win 169 seats at their current level of electoral support. While this would result in the re-election of scores of MPs who previously faced defeat, it would still be disastrous enough to cost the Conservatives control of government. Moreover, instead of being "too bad to be true", this figure is within the range of credible outcomes for a party losing control of government. In 1997 John Major's government won only 165 seats when it went down to defeat to New Labour.

Probability of Parliamentary outcomes May 2023

The two percentage point rise in Conservative support this month leaves the party under 30 percent, 15 percentage points behind the Labour Party. After allowing for a big statistical margin of error, the best Electoral Calculus prediction is that the Tories might win 284 seats. This would leave Labour the biggest party in the House of Commons with 294 MPs, enough to gain control of Downing Street.

For Sir Keir Starmer opinion polls are moving from a Labour victory on a scale too good to last to within the realm of a credible Labour majority. The notional reduction of 48 in Labour's predicted number of MPs makes the most likely outcome as of April's polls a Parliamentary Labour Party with 409 MPs. This is virtually the same number of seats as Labour won in 1997.

All three British parties are predicted to improve their position in Scotland as the slogans 'It's time for a change' and 'Get rid of sleaze' now work against the Scottish National Party. Labour is likely to gain the most, up 15 seats from winning only one seat at the 2019 general election. The Conservatives can benefit by not losing the six MPs that they now have and the Liberals could gain a seat. The internal problems of the SNP have cost the party one-quarter of the support it had earlier in this Parliament. Nonetheless, the SNP still holds a seven percentage point lead over Labour and currently appears likely to win 32 Scottish seats, twice Labour's total.

The results of local elections held in England on Thursday will give a fresh view of electoral support with more than 8,000 council seats up for grabs. The parties doing best can claim that their gains reflect the support of real voters. However, although local election votes are real, they are unrepresentative. Turnout is far below that in a general election and local elections are not being held throughout the United Kingdom. While opinion polls are not real ballots, they are representative of the electorate as a whole.

Richard Rose is Britain's senior psephologist and an expert on party government. His new book 'How Sick is British Democracy?: a Clinical Analysis' is published by Palgrave.