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Does anyone put the fear into Keir?

19 August 2022
| by Field Team

The Conservative leadership contest is in its final throes, with a new Prime Minister set to assume office in under three weeks. But after a summer of focusing solely on Tory members, Field's Stephen Alton discusses how Truss or Sunak would fare in a general election

The financial crisis, recession, Brexit, Covid-19 and now a cost of living crisis. The twelve years of Conservative rule has been eventful to say the least, and as history shows, fatigue for a government that’s lasted this long should be setting in by now. Does this mean that Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are just applying to be a short-term caretaker Prime Minister, or can they turn the polls around and win the next General Election?

Electability is a serious concern for the Conservative MPs who narrowed down the field, particularly the 100 who were newly elected in 2019 and represent several of the most marginal seats in the country. That is why the Conservatives are quick to turn on their leaders when they become a liability, self-preservation comes first and not much else gets in the way. Boris won them a majority many politicians could only dream of and less than three years later he was shown the door. Legally the next election has to be held by January 2025, but no one wants an election in the dead of winter and in reality, summer 2024 is far more likely. This is only two years away, so which of the two, has the better chance of turning things around in that time?

Many (including the 137 MPs who backed him in the parliamentary phase) assumed it would be Rishi. He enjoyed near unrivalled fame and popularity during the pandemic through his giveaways, and it was assumed this would make him more sellable to the public. However, could the problem be that those who prefer Rishi are actually more likely to vote for another party? That could explain why some recent polls have Truss performing well on ‘who would be the better PM’. A recent Redfield & Wilton poll has Truss beating Starmer by 41% to 37% compared to to Starmer beating Sunak by 41% to 34%. This follows a Savanta ComRes poll in late July that showed the same result (by smaller margins). This has come as a surprise to many, both candidates have been aiming their policies at a very specific sub-section of the British public: Conservative members, but one candidate is doing much better than the other out of it. Polls can be wrong, but it has certainly popped a few assumptions in the Westminster bubble.

So how has this happened? And can we read much into it?

Rishi’s green card and his wife’s tax status “revelations” have had a significant impact. YouGov found that after that more than half of the population (58%) thought Rishi was “untrustworthy”. His role in Boris’s downfall has only added to this reputation and it doesn’t seem like something Rishi can overcome. His private wealth, during a cost-of-living crisis, also hurts him, with claims he is out of touch. During a General Election Labour could attack these points over and over again.

But Rishi’s unpopularity doesn’t explain Liz’s apparent lead over Keir. Redfield & Wilton polling shows she has jumped from being around the 20% mark to the 40% mark in just six months. No doubt some of this will be from increased name recognition that comes with all the media coverage she is getting – her approvals have shot up since she reached the final two. Some could also be from the enthusiasm of the Conservative members (in which she consistently has a 30 point lead on Rishi) rubbing off on the public as a whole.

This is promising for Liz, but she will inherit one of the toughest situations in modern history. Indeed, both candidates are throwing a lot of ‘red meat’ at their supporters from tax cuts to civil service reform and so on. But she will have to quickly pivot come the 5th September to appeal more to the wider public. Arguably as the frontrunner, Liz should start doing this now. She has ruled out making a decision on extra cost-of-living support until her emergency budget earmarked for the 21st September, but there will be tremendous pressure for her to reverse her ideological “no handouts” policy with energy bills set to double by early next year.

Ultimately, it is near impossible to predict just how well either candidate would do in an election. They both currently benefit from not being in charge yet and the constant media coverage they are getting. But it’s worth remembering the consistent leads Boris had over Keir before his series of unfortunate gaffes. Keir’s electoral credentials are far from clear and a Conservative defeat at the next General Election is in no way guaranteed.

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