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Whither the Tories?

Whither the Tories?

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Or should that read wither? Despite the occasional lull in the party’s in-house war of attrition, the divide between its fractious factions is never far from the surface. What’s worse, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, is that their support base across the country is every bit as split

Love him or hate him, Tony Blair was dead right with this: ‘The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long.’

This is writ large in a poll for Times Radio last week that revealed that the vast majority of folk don’t even know who most of the leading figures in Westminster are.

But they do have attitudes, and they do have the vote.

Which is where the findings of another poll last week come into play. This one, conducted for The Times by YouGov, was enough to send a chill down the spines of every Conservative MP.

The fact that it still puts Labour miles ahead is a detail. Bit of a given these days. But scratch below the surface and we find the Reform party yapping hard at Tory heels.

This right wing rebranded version of Nigel Farage’s old UKIP is now only four points behind them. A mere two points behind in England, and actually in front oop north.

On top of that, of those who gave Boris Johnson his stonking majority back in 2019, a clear third say they plan to switch to the insurgents.

At least Lee Anderson, who was until recently deputy Tory chair, will be chuffed about that. Likewise the Conservatives’ erstwhile Greater Manchester mayoral candidate, who’s also defected.

Both now claim Reform is the new home of conservatism, as it represents: ‘The ordinary people of this country.’

As to their idea of ‘ordinary people’, the figures show they’re mostly male, energetically anti immigrant and pro Brexit, and derived from the C2DE social grade. Meaning they’re classified as lower social and economic status.

Quite how many of the Tories’ better heeled and differently educated voters from the Home Counties would wish to be sat next to them at a dinner party is an interesting question.

This is not just about class, but also core values and political leanings.

For this reason it’s possible that these posher folk might be more exercised than Reform switchers by research published last week by The Lancet.

It suggests that plummeting birth rates will leave Britain heavily reliant on immigration for decades if it’s to have any chance of sustaining public services and economic growth.

All of which heavily underscores what Rishi Sunak’s up against as he struggles to hang onto his premiership and lead his hopelessly divided troops into battle. A lurid line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth springs to mind.

‘Doubtful it stood, as two spent swimmers, that do cling together. And choke their art.’

Little wonder that the only real question in the minds of potential plotters for the Tory leadership is whether to strike before or after they’re booted out of office.

The next probable flashpoint is a mere six weeks away, when the party expects to be beaten more black than blue in the town hall elections. Worsened, probably, by renewed setbacks over the government’s so-called flagship Rwanda policy.

Its contention that the courts are wrong and that the east African country is a perfectly safe place to send asylum seekers, because it says so, hasn’t played well in the House of Lords.

Enough Tory peers have rebelled against the scheme in its current form to ensure it’s going nowhere this side of easter. Meaning there’ll be no deportations until June at the earliest.

That’s quite apart from possible legal challenges further down the line. Not to mention the small matter of there being no airlines currently willing to do the flying.

Cue Illegal Migration Minister Michael Tomlinson, who told ITV the government would need time to ‘reflect’ on how to proceed. For anyone not up to speed on Westminster Bubble-speak, what he meant was: ‘Search me, guv.’

The public, by contrast, has a very clear idea of the way ahead, judging by findings of the respected research outfit Focaldata.

It seems less than a quarter of us back the bill as it stands. And a clear majority, including more than half of Conservative voters, think it should either have been watered down or scrapped altogether.

At this point Sunak’s political savvy – or lack of it – heaves into view.

He could after all have simply knocked the idea on the head when he took office back in 2022. Of course there’d have been hell up for a few weeks. But that sure beats months and months of it, and many more to come.

Also, if it hadn’t been swept aside by negative headlines about the Rwanda ructions, his achievement in reducing Channel crossings by over a third would have been a feather in his cap.

In addition, the quarter of a billion smackers he’s already shelled out to Rwanda could have come in handy at the Home Office, to pay for more staff to process asylum claims.

This would have meant the job could have been done in weeks instead of years, sometimes. Thus slashing both the numbers of people in limbo, and the bill for housing them while they’re waiting.

Old hands in the political game would link this saga to the way the Prime Minister handled the controversies both over Lee Anderson and the Tory mega-donor Frank Hester.

The two men’s racially tinged remarks gave deep offence to many Conservatives as well as the wider public. And Sunak’s fumbling judgements did nothing to bolster his standing.

About the only thing he has got going for him at the moment is the latest glimmer of hope on the cost of living crisis.

Inflation has just fallen to its lowest level in two years, good news in itself and a possible pointer to an interest rate cut in the coming months, which should ease the pressure on mortgage holders.

In theory, then, something for Sunak to smile about. In practice, however, previous dips in the cost of buying things haven’t budged the polls one bit.

The fact that overall taxation remains at a seventy-year high, hospital waiting lists haven’t got any shorter and potholes haven’t got any shallower, might have something to do with this.

However, while the old saying that a week in politics is a long time needs updating in the social media age to a few seconds, Sunak doesn’t actually have to hold an election for getting on for a year.

And if our feline friends have nine lives, why shouldn’t he? Ah, says Anita Kelsey, a moggie marvel and author of Let’s Talk About Cats, here’s the problem.

The reason they so often get stuck up trees is that their claws are curved only one way. Meaning it’s easy enough to hook onto whatever they’re climbing, but very hard for them to get down again.

Be different, she adds, if it ever crossed their minds to descend, so to speak, bottom first. But it doesn’t. So whatever bind they get into, they’re stuck with it.

Ring any bells? Rishi?

Watch Peter’s report at

Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.

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