General Election

General Election: What constitutes a Tory wipeout and how bad could it get?

Rishi Sunak head and shoulders
Is Sunak going to suffer a wipeout?

Talk of a Tory wipeout is growing with Nigel Farage even aiming for a repeat of 'Canada 1993'. Is that realistic? Paul Krishnamurty analyses the range of possibilities...

  • Current polls much worse than 1997

  • Voting system may work against them

  • Lib Dems rate fair value to surpass them

As the Conservatives have collapsed in poll share over the past couple of years, comparisons with the 1997 general election have become ever more frequent. That was the party's worst ever performance in terms of vote share (31%) and since 1906 in terms of parliamentary seats won (165).

In fact, based on poll share, a repeat of 1997 would be a good result. They haven't recorded 30% in any poll since mid-October, 2023. Just before arguably their worst ever by-election defeats in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth.

Their positioned has since worsened. They hit 29% six times earlier this year, most recently in mid-February. Since the election was called last week, they've hit 28% once and average a paltry 24% from 12 surveys.

Could the Tory position improve?

The answer is a resounding yes. Governments nearly always improve during general election campaigns, as voters scrutinise the opposition more.

Their current woes are exacerbated by the rise of a right-wing alternative, Reform UK. But that party is widely forecast to win zero seats and its talisman honorary president, Nigel Farage, isn't standing. Tory messengers will declare a vote for Reform to be a wasted one, which helps Labour.

If squeezing Reform, they could easily rise to 30%, even without taking any from Labour or the Lib Dems. The nature of Rishi Sunak's campaign so far would suggest this 'core vote strategy' is their immediate priority.

If reaching 30%, there's a very good chance they would better that 1997 tally of 165 seats, due to boundary changes. Going below that line requires Labour winning in what would historically have seemed very unlikely places.

Nevertheless, there is no sign of this comeback as of yet. Betfair's Under/Over Conservative Seats line stands at 140.5. In Wednesday's Live Blog entry, I recommended a confident bet on 'Unders' at even money.

Seat projections vary widely

Throughout the campaign, there will be numerous MRP surveys, which seek to forecast the result in each constituency. These have been very useful in recent elections, but there is a much wider range of plausible outcomes this year. Four produced already this year had the Tory total between 80 and 169.

In addition to the Reform factor, what makes it so much harder to project this year is the potential for tactical voting. This was a big factor in that 1997 result, as Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters voted tactically for the better-placed. That effort was particularly advanced by an advisory list in The Observer newspaper.

There is much recent evidence that tactical voting is back to 1997 levels, and maybe considerably higher given the greater ease to calculate and share that data nowadays. The effort is even being led by a very famous celebrity in Carol Vorderman.

Voting system punishes unpopular parties

The threat to the Tories is compounded by the voting system (which they have always fiercely defended). 'First past the post' means that, if opponents largely coalesce around a single alternative, winning a constituency with less than 40% becomes very hard. Even that may not be enough.

The historic experience of the Lib Dems demonstrates that. In 1983, under the guise of the Liberal/SDP Alliance, the third party did historically well, but 25% vote share yielded just 23 seats.

As the Liberal Democrats, they would later easily surpass that seat total in the four elections from 1997-2010, winning 46, 52, 62 and 57 without ever reaching that 1983 vote share - 23% was their highest, achieved in 2010.

Tories would fare worse with same numbers

What should terrify the Tories is the nature of those performances. In that era, the Lib Dems enjoyed a consistent tactical benefit in seats where they were facing the Tories from Labour voters, mostly in the South. Their vote, activists and campaign efforts were laser-focused on their relatively small number of targets. Around 80.

In contrast, the Conservative vote is relatively evenly spread across the country. If they achieve their current 24% share at the general election, even 50 seats becomes optimistic. In theory, if tactical voting was exceptionally effective, they could end up with zero. Under 50 seats is currently available to back at odds of 13.5.

The real-world example of a 'Tory wipeout' is Canada 1993. Farage says this is his goal, his model to realign the right-wing. Then, the Canadian Tories lost all but two of their 156 seats. But is this realistic?

While unlikely, it could be almost as bad. In my initial look at their 140 safest seats, I categorised them in five stages of vulnerability - safe, almost safe, not safe, vulnerable and highly vulnerable. Only seven were deemed safe, and another 14 almost safe.

Lib Dems could plausibly usurp them

This is an extreme scenario but consider the following chain of events. Sunak's campaign continues to bomb. Tory MPs and commentators become increasingly panicked and divided. Rather than contract, Reform rise in the polls with Farage constantly in the media. When it comes to polling day, a general consensus that the election is a no-contest forms. Demoralised Tory voters stay at home. Their better motivated opponents tactically coalesce.

This is not my prediction, but I do think there is some value, or trading mileage, about backing the extremes. Rather than backing that Under 50 line (which is generously priced in my view), back the Lib Dems to win Most Seats Without Labour at 13.012/1. If anything like that chain of events materialises, the Lib Dems will go way beyond 50. The Tories could win 60-odd and still finish third.

Now read General Election: Five questions to be answered during the campaign

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