The message of Thursday’s three UK by-elections was muddied somewhat by the Conservatives’ success in clinging on to the seat Boris Johnson vacated in outer London. But it was clear enough: this was a disastrous night for the Tories. Striking swings to Labour and the Liberal Democrats in northern and south-west England respectively confirm that voters are widely fed up with the ruling party, and ready to give the opposition a chance at the next general election. In the 18 months Rishi Sunak has left to find a way to avoid becoming the UK’s fourth shortest-serving prime minister, he must hold out against those urging him to make irresponsible choices.
Labour and the Lib Dems deserve credit for making their parties electable again. Yet the turnaround in the polls is above all a result of the Conservatives’ startling implosion. Johnson’s initial genius was to make his 2019 election victory feel like the arrival of a new party, not a prolongation of nine years of Tory rule. The collapse of his project, in part thanks to his own failings, destroyed that illusion.
The Conservatives are now paying the price for the unalluring record of their carousel of premiers over 13 years. The flagship Brexit policy has not brought the benefits its supporters thought they had been promised. Voters bowed by a cost of living crisis survey stagnant growth, sticky inflation, public-sector unrest and floundering services, despite the highest tax burden since the late 1940s.
The serious Sunak has tried to do the right thing, including resolving the noxious dispute with the EU over post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland. But his party is yet to see any gain in the polls. His “five pledges” including cutting inflation and hospital waiting lists and boosting growth, initially lampooned for paucity of ambition, are proving embarrassingly hard to realise.
The danger is the prime minister will now succumb to the pleadings of some of his MPs to swerve to rightwing populism. Many will urge pre-election tax cuts in an effort to blunt the cost of living crisis. They will seize on the victory in Uxbridge — where the Tories exploited a backlash against the Labour mayor’s plans to extend London’s ultra low emission zone — as an argument to resile from the government’s net zero targets, following the lead of parties of the right in the US and parts of Europe.
The prime minister should block out such siren voices. Tax cuts are unaffordable, and many disaffected voters would recognise them as a bribe, pocket them, and vote elsewhere anyway. Backing away from green policies is irresponsible for the long-term future and, even if it shores up parts of the Tory base, will turn off young voters the party needs. Climate change is too important to be used as a political punchbag.
Polling shows Sunak is more popular than his party, and scores best when he takes steps to govern for the whole country, not pander to his fringe. His interests would be best served by focusing efforts for the rest of his term on a small number of goals to tackle some of Britain’s long-term challenges — and showing his party can deliver.
He should rejoin the EU’s €95bn Horizon programme, a huge prize for the scientific community. He should leverage this week’s success in attracting India’s Tata Group to build a £4bn battery gigafactory, helped by £500mn in subsidies, to show how green policies can draw in investment and create jobs — and set up a clearer structure for such projects. He should lift the ban on onshore wind, despite Tory opposition in the shires, and push through financial reforms including encouraging more private sector money into growth projects.
Such efforts may still not avert a defeat by Labour. But they are the right thing for his party and the country. And they would at least secure Sunak a kinder write-up in the history books than his two immediate predecessors.