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LibDems Threaten Key Tory Seats

LibDems Threaten Key Tory Seats
Written by Graham Gudgin

The polls have changed little during the General Election campaign, leaving Labour with a large lead. Our predictions for seats are a little less catastrophic than some polls but still suggest a Labour majority of around 200-240 seats. The strength of the Liberal Democrats and the degree of tactical voting could be important in determining which Tory MPs survive. Leadership contender Kemi Badenoch could be vulnerable despite her huge current majority.

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In the cowboy films of my youth some beleaguered prairie outpost would be rescued at the last minute by the arrival of the US cavalry, uniforms pristine and pennants flying. The Rishi Sunak must have hoped for an equivalent outcome when he rashly declared a general election for American Independence Day six months earlier than was strictly necessary.  As it turns out, instead of some redeeming mission like the Falklands war that saved Mrs. Thatcher’s bacon in 1983 the PM has spent the campaign shooting himself in the foot.

Why he spurned the chance of photo-ops with Biden, Macron and Sholtz in Normandy is a mystery yet to be satisfactorily explained. Sunak is a clever and moral man but people close to him in No.10 tell me that he lacks political instincts.  None of this might have been decisive if the Tories had not started the campaign 20 points behind Labour with few convincing excuses for their failures particularly on migration, both legal and illegal. The betting scandal might also have been downplayed, except that it played into a narrative of Tory venality. The partygate fiasco came to mind. It did matter to many that Sunak’s partygate police caution was deeply unfair for a hard-working teetotal minister who appeared only briefly at a party. More important for those with long memories was the photograph of young Tory staffers whooping it up at an illegal party during lockdown.

Any party would have had an uphill battle to secure a fifth successive term in office, and the polls clearly demonstrate the loss of support since 2019. The Tory’s fourth victory in 2019 was in any case an aberration. It was not only the Leave voters of 2016 who resented the attempts to overturn a legally and well-conducted referendum result. With the advantage of the weakest Labour leader since MIchael Foot in 1983 Boris Johnson’s visible flaws were put on the back burner as the electorate awarded him a historic victory, not least in the former Labour heartlands of the northern ‘ Red Wall’.

It is one of history’s great might have beens to speculate on how the Tories might have copper-bottomed this major political realignment, but too few Tory MPs appeared interested in a real one nation party. More important was securing the traditional Tory heartlands where Remainers where strong and votes were leaking to the LibDems. In the event too little was done to attempt to level-up the depressed northern constituencies and to many working-class voters in the north the Tories were, in Keith Waterhouse’s phrase ‘all mouth and no trousers’.

The polls show electoral support for the Tories gently declining after the 2019 victory with Labour under its new leadership overtaking them by late 2021. When Boris Johnson was forced out by his Ministers in July 2022 the Tories were still at 33% in the polls, six points Behin Labour. The collapse in support came with the fiasco of the Truss-Kwarteng mini-budget when the Tory’s managed to to take the blame for the sharp rise in mortgage rates that was coming anyway as a result of the reappearance of high inflation following the outbreak of war in the Ukraine.

Tory support fell sharply to 22% were it remained at the start of the current election campaign in June 2024. Both YouGov and Politico’s Poll of Polls show a further decline during the campaign to a range of 20-21% with Labour at 37-41%. Rishi Sunak and his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt achieved the promised financial stability but little else. The new PM’s lead policy of a smoking ban at his first Tory annual conference in 2923 looked more like displacement activity than real leadership.

Centrist commentators like the ex-Tory MP Matthew Parris have claimed that the strength of the Conservative right wing under MPs like Duncan-Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg have undermined Rishi Sunak’s attempt at a come-back, but the surge in support for the Reform Party now led by Nigel Farage suggests that many voters felt the Tories have been insufficiently right-wing, especially on migration. Where Paris has more of a point is in the late rise in support for the LibDems which YouGov put at 13% (up from 9% in May).

The halving of Tory support spells disaster due to the way that the UK’s fist past the post electoral system reward leading parties (irrespective of whether they have an overall majority of votes) and savagely punish parties which trail behind. The current likely outcome is seats gained is shown in the table below, with the voting intentions on which the seats projections are based shown in the second table. The projected Labour majority over all other parties (excluding Sinn Fein) is 176 for YouGov and 200 for the Politico Poll of Polls.

  2019 Actual 2024 YouGov 2004 Poll of polls MRP Polls
Labour 203 410 422 458
Tory 365 86 106 87
LibDem 11 89 63 55
Green 1 7 1 3
Reform (Brexit) 0 1 1 8
SNP 48 37 36 17
Plaid Cymru 4 2 3 4
N Ireland 18 18 18 18
Other 0 0 0 1
EFFECTIVE MAJORITY 176 200 272

 

  2019 Actual 2024 YouGov 2004 Poll of polls
Labour 32.9 36 41
Tory 44.7 18 20
LibDem 11.8 15 12
Green 2.8 8 5
Reform (Brexit) 2.1 17 17
SNP 4 3 3
Plaid Cymru 0.5 1 1
Other 1.2 2 1

 

Also included, is an average for the three latest MRP (multi-level, regression and post-stratification) polls. These are large sample polls which use local social and age compositions to predict outcomes in individual constituencies. The predicted Labour majority is larger for these polls at 272 which implies tactical voting in favour of Labour by voters who might otherwise vote for the Liberal Democrats.

These seats projections are obtained by applying a uniform swing to the estimated 2019 votes based on the redrawn constituency boundaries applying in 2024. That is if the swing recorded in the voting intentions polls were replicated in every constituency, this would be the outcome. For the Reform party which did not exist in 2019 we have assumed that it picks up half of the vote share lost by the Tories since this matches their poll figures.

If in contrast, the swing was not uniform then the outcome would be different. One possibility is that tactical voting occurs in constituencies where the projected Tory lead in small. Under the Poll of Polls scenario there are 45 constituencies where the Tory majority is less than 2,000. In most of these cases Labour is in second place, but in seven the Libdems are second. In almost all of these areas we expect the Reform Party to gain around 9,000 votes. This is hardly enough to win a single seat but enough to push the Tories into second place. Even a small increase in this total could deprive the Tories of a win in these marginal seats and the salience of Nigel Farage in Clacton and perhaps also Richard Tice in Boston might well tip the balance in their favour. The MRP polls go further and predict that the Reform vote will be more concentrated than we have assumed leading to victories in eight seats.

If the Tories were to lose half of these marginals (i.e. 22 seats) due to tactical voting it would increase the effective Labour majority to 244 and reduce the number of Tory seats to only 84. This gets the predicted Labour victory close to that predicted by the MRP polls.

On the other hand, if the swing against the Tories were to be larger in Conservative strongholds as some polls suggest the loss of seats would be lower and the Labour majority smaller. Another possibility is that the large number of undecided voters plump for the Tories rather than abstaining. Again this would increase the projected number of Tory seats and reduce the Labour majority.

The betting must however be on a large Labour majority of at least 200 seats. If this seems catastrophic, then it could have been much worse for the Tories. The chart below shows the number of wins projected for each party at different assumed Tory shares of the total vote.  We expect the Tories to gain around 20% of the vote and project 86-100 seats won. If the Tory vote share were to fall just a few more points then the disaster would be much greater. At a 16% share of the vote the Conservatives would be overtaken by the Liberal Democrats and at 14% also by Reform. Indeed a 14% share of the vote represents a cliff-edge. At this level Reform would suddenly surge from zero to 74 seats leaving the Tories as a small rump party with 25 seats,

 

Such an apocalyptic outcome seems unlikely but Conservatives should be deeply concerned by how close it might have been.

With a huge Labour victory now looking certain, the main focus of Conservative supporters will be on what remains of the parliamentary Tory party and the composition of the remaining MPs. As reported in our last election article around half of the current cabinet will lose their seats. This is likely to include leadership contender, Penny Mordaunt. The fate of others including Kemi Badenoch  Suella Braverman and Tom Tugendhat, will depend on the strength of support for Liberal Democrats and the amount of tactical voting. The Poll of Polls predictions which give a slightly higher Tory vote and lower LibDem support, all three would win through. However, if YouGov is nearer the mark, with a LibDem vote share at 15% Tugendhat and Braverman look potentially safe but Badenoch could lose narrowly to the Liberal Democrats. If potential Reform voters are reluctant to oppose Kemi Badenoch as seems likely then she will survive. More generally if as seems likely more One Nation Tories survive and fewer right-wingers, then MPs like Tugendhat may be preferred for the leadership. The Party may also change the rules for leadership elections to restrict voting to MPs this cutting out other party members. This again will favour One Nation leadership contenders.

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About the author

Graham Gudgin