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Sunak leading Tories to election ‘wipeout’ worse than 1997 landslide defeat

After the first 10 days of the general election campaign, which has seen Rishi Sunak traverse the length and breadth of the UK by plane, train and helicopter, his party’s prospects at the ballot box come July 4 have not shifted.

The view of pollsters, political scientists and Tory campaign veterans from elections past is that Mr Sunak, despite his best efforts, is on course to lead the Conservatives to the worst result in more than a generation, including the landslide defeat the party suffered in 1997.

But how bad it could it be for the Tories this time around?

“Wipeout,” was the one word answer given by Chris Hopkins, Political Research Director at Savanta, when asked what the polling figures pointed to for the Tories at this stage of the election.

“At this stage, and if things don’t change, I think Labour will be in or around 400 seats. I think I’d be surprised at this point if they got less than that.

“I don’t buy the idea that the Tories will end up on less than 100 seats as some polls suggest, but it is possible that they could end up only just scraping three figures,” Mr Hopkins added.

Received wisdom among polling experts is that the Conservatives could land anywhere between 110 and 200 seats depending on how well their campaign goes, with several psephologists telling i that a result of 150 seats was perhaps the most likely as the current figures stand.

Joe Twyman, director of Deltapoll, said that despite the noise surrounding a lot of the polls during the first full week of the campaign, stating that the “reality is all pollsters are showing no significant change from now and prior to the election”.

He added: “The situation [for the Tories] is as bad as it was at the start of the campaign. If the gap is 27 points, as YouGov has it, it’s very, very, very bad for the Tories. And if it’s 12 points, as JL Partners has it, then it’s very bad. They are all showing the same thing, which is that as it stands there will be a three figure majority for Labour.”

Canadian ‘annihilation’ is Tories’ biggest fear

The greatest fear among the Tories is for the party to emulate the performance of the Canadian Conservatives in the 1993 election, when it called an election as the party in power only to see its 156 seats whittled down to just two.

The annihilation has gone down in folklore as a cautionary tale for all political parties, particularly the Tories, who whisper of it like Voldemort as they dare not speak its name.

But Tim Bale, a political scientist at Queen Mary University of London, dismissed the chances of Mr Sunak’s Conservatives suffering such a setback in five weeks time.

“I’m a little sceptical when someone mentions the Canadian Conservatives in 1993, because that’s virtually the only example of a party getting wiped out,” Professor Bale said. “Quite frankly, the idea that the Conservatives could go under 100 seats is for the birds. It’s unlikely we will see that. Under the worst case scenario in 1997 they secured 165 seats, 94 of which they had held since the Second World War.

“You could see them going down to 150 seats if everything goes as bad as it is at the moment. Although Labour appears to be shooting itself in the foot as well.”

Both Labour and the Conservatives have been running cautious campaigns. Sir Keir Starmer, eager not to drop the ball so close to the line, is concentrating on trying show the public that the country will be in safe hands under Labour.

On the other hand, Conservative campaign veterans believe the Tories are going for “damage limitation”, aiming to stem the losses and keep hold of as many seats as possible. Mr Sunak’s decision to campaign in seats, such as Bosworth this week, where the Tories have a more than 26,000 majority, appeared to illustrate the point.

‘The Tory brand is in a terrible place’

Lee Cain, the former 10 Downing Street communications director was in the nerve centre of both the Vote Leave campaign and Boris Johnson’s successful 2019 general election battle. He said that the fundamentals of the election facing Mr Sunak were such that a heavy defeat was all but inevitable.

“All elections are about change or more of the same, and just from the research that that we’ve been doing, you can see that the public is crying out for change in all of the core battlegrounds of an election,” Mr Cain, now a founding partner at political strategists Charlesbye told i.

Mr Cain said that across all major policy areas, from immigration, the NHS to crime, the public feel that they are in a worse state than in 2019, before the pandemic and certainly when compared to 2010.

“When you’re coming into that environment and you’re positioning yourself as the status quo candidate, I think it’s incredibly difficult to win an election,” he added.

The former No 10 advisor claimed that the Tory leader had a brief window of opportunity to change the party’s political fortunes when he first entered Downing Street, but his decision to prioritise a smoking ban and reforming A-levels “misunderstood the public mood”.

His failure to seize that moment, coupled with the chaos he inherited after Boris Johnson’s tenure and Liz Truss’s catastrophic administration, has left him with a mountain to climb.

“The Tory brand is in a terrible place,” Mr Cain said. “After the tail end of Boris’s tenure and the damage Liz Truss did, when she effectively put a Tory rosette on the financial crisis of the last two years, I think it is going to be a very wide defeat for the Tories.”

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