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Can Rishi Sunak stage the biggest electoral comeback in decades?

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With less than eight months to go until an expected autumn UK general election, Rishi Sunak has a steep climb to avoid defeat. If he calls for an earlier summer vote, the ascent would become almost vertical.

Support for the Conservatives has dropped to a new low of 23 per cent, matching the previous nadir reached during Liz Truss’s brief premiership in October 2022, according to the FT’s poll tracker.

The prime minister says he expects to hold an election in the second half of 2024, allowing time for better economic news to feed through to voters, and creating space for a tax-cutting Autumn Statement.

But if voters inflict large-scale losses on the Tories in local elections on May 2, which could prompt more party infighting and plotting, some MPs believe the prime minister will be weakened and may feel he has no choice but to call a national vote in June, before things get worse.

Whenever it takes place, the next election is going to be without precedent. Polls suggest a Labour victory, which would require Sir Keir Starmer’s party to achieve a huge swing compared with its 2019 drubbing — marking an extraordinary comeback in a single parliament.

If Sunak defies the odds and his party recovers from its 20-point polling deficit within months, it would represent a comeback that has not been managed by any incumbent since 1970.

There are few silver linings for the Conservatives in the polling data, even among their traditional base. Over-65s still lean Tory, but the lead over Labour has dwindled to just 3 percentage points, while an Ipsos poll after the last election showed a 47-point lead. Every other age group now favours Labour by at least 13 points.

Labour’s rise is also spread efficiently. Instead of stacking up votes in safe seats in London, most of the increase in support for the party has been built up in counties across England’s south, the midlands and the north — potentially translating into hundreds of seats changing hands. The polling implies that an incredible battering for the Tories may be on the cards.

But there are some reasons to believe the outlook could improve for the Tories.

First, there is a large pool of undecided voters that totals about 13 per cent of those intending to vote. Most pollsters assume they reflect the rest of the electorate, but 60 per cent of this group supported the Conservatives in 2019. If the undecided ex-Tories support their former party, it could bump up its national vote share by 5 points.

Second, as the election approaches and the likelihood of a Labour government looms, some supporters of the Reform party may switch to the Conservatives. The traditional parties are practised at the so-called “squeeze” — convincing people who want to vote for smaller outfits that they may be wasting their vote. With Reform currently polling at 12 per cent, a successful squeeze could make a big difference.

Sunak’s current strategy may be to consolidate his base by winning back the missing 2019 voters and Reform supporters. The Conservatives’ new “Life under Labour” campaign, which portrays a Labour-run country as a crime-ridden dystopia, attempts to bring back these waverers by convincing them that the alternative will be even worse.

However, there may not be enough Reform voters and Tory undecideds to rescue the Conservatives. Even if the party managed to recover half of the Reform voters plus all the Tory undecideds it would still leave them on 33 per cent of the national vote share — 8 percentage points behind Labour.

In this scenario, FT modelling indicates that Labour would still secure a comfortable majority and the Conservatives would lose more than a hundred seats.

Looking to the party’s right is also an inefficient way for the Tories to campaign. Winning back 7 percentage points from Reform would allow the Conservatives to hold 186 seats. Getting back 7 percentage points from Labour would leave the Tories with 247 seats and potentially deny Starmer a majority.

The Conservatives need to start taking votes from Labour to have any chance of victory, but they are struggling to find issues to campaign on. According to data from pollster YouGov, fewer than 20 per cent of respondents believe the Conservatives are the best party on any issue except defence and security.

A rightward shift in Tory rhetoric may also make it harder to fight the Liberal Democrats in leafier seats of the Conservative heartlands.

The Lib Dems are hovering at about 10 per cent of national vote share, but much of their support is concentrated in a few dozen Conservative-held seats in the south.

YouGov’s large-scale MRP poll, released in January, showed the Lib Dems were projected to flip 40 seats, and were within 10 percentage points in 26 more.

The analysis implied that the Conservatives would hold on in many seats with its share of the vote hovering in the mid-30s, but any tactical voting targeting the Tories could shift the balance and be devastating.

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