The Tories now face a choice: lose office with honour or burn everything in sight
Governing parties do not become oppositions overnight. Well, strictly speaking, they do. Come an election, regimes fall between polls closing at 10pm on Thursday and ousted leaders conceding on Friday morning.
But there is a more gradual transition to opposition as a state of mind – an exhaustion of the will to govern and a dissolution of discipline into factional rancour. That journey precedes an election defeat but also makes one more likely. MPs lose hope of victory. The leader runs out of inducements to loyalty. Attempts to show strength fail, advertising weakness instead.
Voters smell decay and recoil from the source. Even the government’s supporters start to anticipate defeat as a euthanising mercy. How far down that path have Rishi Sunak’s Tories travelled? Where is the point of no return?
Conservatives comfort themselves that little of the present was foreseen in the past, which suggests that electoral decimation is not fixed in their future. Labour MPs intone the same mantra to ward off complacency.
Years of volatility, the submersion of what used to be “normal” politics by Brexit and the pandemic have bred expectation of the unexpected. But ambitious Tories aren’t betting on a fifth term in government. The list of MPs who are quitting parliament at the next election includes rising stars (Dehenna Davison), mid-career ministerial midfielders (Chris Skidmore) and seasoned frontbench veterans (Sajid Javid), among others of all ages and factions.
A related trend is high-profile figures branching out into the media. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries have done deals to host their own chatshows on GB News and Talk TV respectively. They haven’t done that to support the prime minister.
Preening populism is a competitive market. Success depends on generating news and stirring controversy, which means making trouble for the government. The box office demands blue-on-blue action.
Sunak has been in Downing Street now for 100 days, which is more than double the time Liz Truss spent there but still short enough for it to feel premature to write him off already. A case for optimism was made at a recent cabinet away day at Chequers by Isaac Levido, Sunak’s campaign strategist (who is paid to think of reasons why the cause is not lost), and, over dinner, by William Hague (speaking as a survivor of lost Tory causes).
Related: The 100-day test for new leaders and why Rishi Sunak is flunking it | Andrew Rawnsley
Hope of a Conservative revival rests on the softness of Labour support – people are not excited by Keir Starmer – and the precedent of 1992, when John Major pulled off a surprise victory over Neil Kinnock. Hague also reminded his audience what happened next: descent into sleaze, perpetual rebellion and landslide defeat.
There are plenty of scenarios between the polls of 1992 and 1997, and no reason why voters in 2024 should faithfully re-enact battles that were fought on a different political landscape in a bygone century.
It is true that the current leader of the opposition lacks Tony Blair’s easy magnetism. The spectre of 1992 might not feel current enough to lift Tory spirits but it still spooks the hell out of Labour, and Starmer still looks more like a man creeping up on power than one striding purposefully towards it.
Labour MPs privately concede that their poll lead describes flight from the Conservatives more than attraction to an opposition platform that few could articulate in bullet points.
But it is easily forgotten how much that was also true in the mid-90s. The scale of Blair’s victory was amplified by demoralised Conservative supporters staying at home and Liberal Democrats picking up votes from people who were focused on getting the Tories out. Fewer people voted Labour in 1997 than had voted Tory in 1992 (13.5 million versus 14.1 million).
An underappreciated ingredient for Labour success is lack of public horror at the prospect of Starmer entering Downing Street. He doesn’t have to make pulses race as long as he doesn’t make stomachs turn or skin crawl, which has been a problem with his recent predecessors.
In that context, Starmer’s style – sounding like a headteacher stepping into a school in special measures – might be the right one, or at least the one that works best within his limited performance range. He has been a big disappointment to those craving socialist evangelism or denunciations of Brexit. Their frustration might depress Labour’s vote share, but not in ways that do the Tories much good.
A shortage of eager Starmerites will be a weakness in government, when unpopular decisions have to be taken, but it is not an insurmountable obstacle to being a government-in-waiting. Especially not when the governing party is practically begging to be put into opposition.
Starmer’s base is not among politics fans who wear their colours with tribal pride. It is the quiet voters in the middle who are tired of ideological adventures and polarising spectacle. He can satisfy a taste for government that is benignly boring and doesn’t induce despair or eye-rolling dismay.
Sunak recognises that appetite, which is why on his first day in the job he promised a new era of integrity and professionalism. The subsequent 99 days have shown that his party has other ideas. They can’t agree on what good government involves for long enough to put on a display.
There is a faction that thinks Liz Truss’s economic policy – tax cuts financed by imaginary growth projections – was not a disaster but too much of a good thing that financial markets found hard to digest. There is also a camp that thinks Boris Johnson was blameless in his own downfall, traduced by cowards and traitors.
That makes a significant cohort of MPs who think their leader is an agent of decline and a leader who thinks the blockage to recovery is found on his own backbenches. It is not a unique affliction, but nor is it a syndrome that can be resolved in office. The obstruction is no mere question of policy or direction. It goes deeper, entwined and embedded in the guts of the party. It can’t be loosened without electoral intervention. It needs voters to flush the lot of them out of power.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist