Rishi moves the dial with MPs but not voters

by Prof Richard Rose, 29 September 2023

Whether the issue is climate change, HS2, or taxation, the Prime Minister can say things that move MPs to act. Those on the left or right of an undisciplined party go public with their protests, while those who back Sunak out of conviction or party loyalty come to his defence. In an era of 24/7 media coverage, this creates a lot of oscillation in his parliamentary support.

However, the Conservative position in public opinion polls has been remarkably stable since Sunak became prime minister on 25 October last year. The Conservative vote was 26 percent in the average of polls two weeks later; the party's support in this month's polls shows an increase of barely one percent. In the dozen monthly surveys in Sunak's time in office. The Tory vote has ranged by only three percentage points and has never reached thirty percent. This is little more than what would be caused by sampling fluctuations.

Probability of Parliamentary outcomes October 2023

Thanks to the way the British electoral system responds to multi-party competition, Sunak has managed to reverse the likely loss of Conservative seats under his two predecessors. By the time Boris Johnson left office in July 2022, polls were showing a projected loss of 118 seats. When Liz Truss left office three months later, polls showed the Conservatives would hold only 48 seats at a general election.

Sunak's entry into Downing Street brought the number of seats held back into treble digits, but still 352 seats behind Labour. This month's poll increases the projected number of Tory seats to 149, almost as high as it was when Liz Truss defeated Sunak in the party vote for prime minister. Labour remains comfortably ahead with a forecast total of 418 MPs.

The Conservative gain in seats without a gain in vote is due to the Labour party no longer having 'too good to last' support. When Sunak entered office Sir Keir Starmer's party was standing at 50 percent in the polls, 25 percent ahead of the Conservatives. Currently, its support averages 44 percent. This promises enough MPs to give Labour control of government for five years after the next election.

The two parties competing with Labour for the left-of-centre vote have both risen in the polls. Liberal support is up a couple of points and, because it is now tactically concentrated in no longer safe Conservative seats, it threatens the Tories with the loss of almost 20 MPs at the next general election. Moreover, since Labour is committed to remaining out of the European Union, this leaves the Liberal Democrats as the preferred party for those who voted to remain in the EU.

Support for the Green party has also risen by two percent since Liz Truss resigned as prime minister. This reflects Sir Keir Starmer's desire, shared with Sunak, to avoid frightening voters by advocating a speedy move to net zero carbon emissions that would force voters to buy electric cars and new heating systems.

Rishi Sunak can claim little thanks for not losing as many seats as Liz Truss threatened, since current polls show the party would lose more than half its seats if a general election were held today. Boris Johnson's supporters can claim he did better. While polls showed that the Tories were holding onto more votes and seats when Johnson left office than Sunak has today, this means that by losing almost a third of Tory seats Johnson would still have cost the Conservatives control of government.

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.