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1992 or 1997? The Question Everyone in Westminster is Asking

6 Feb 2023

What is happening? 

What we can do is set out the most likely scenarios. You can boil them down to two possibilities: 1992 or 1997. In 1992, the Conservative Party was entering an election against a backdrop of a government dogged by sleaze and scandal, widespread strikes, and economic challenges. The Party’s new leader, John Major, polled better with the public than his party and was known for quietly getting on with the job. The Conservatives were widely expected to lose the election but delivered a surprise victory and won with a small majority. Sound familiar? There are many, including former Conservative leader Lord William Hague, who believe Rishi Sunak can repeat the 1992 result.

One of your UK Polis analysts recently had lunch with a Conservative MP who told Polis Analysis that he believes the best election result the Conservatives can hope for is one akin to that achieved in 1992. At a Labour fundraising dinner your same Polis analyst attended a few nights ago, an experienced special adviser to a senior figure in the Labour shadow cabinet told Polis Analysis that while Labour is comfortably ahead of the polls, he was by no means confident of a Labour victory given his party has been in this position many times before.  

Why is a 1992 style surprise Conservative win on the cards? Bill Clinton famously said “it’s the economy, stupid”. His golden rule that the economy’s performance impacts the popularity of the incumbent government rings true. The current economic picture could substantially improve by the time of the next election – the Bank of England is forecasting that inflation will reach levels close to its 2% target and is set to halve this year alone. The other reason Sunak could pull off a surprise win is his favourable personal poll ratings. Like Major in 1992, Sunak is more popular with the public than his party – 47% of the public favour Sunak while just 26% of the Conservatives do according to an Ipsos Mori poll two months ago. The more telling poll is this; Sunak is seen as a more capable Prime Minister than Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer by 41% of the public while just 35% see Starmer as more capable than Sunak. A former special adviser to former Prime Minister Theresa May told Polis that this factor alone could carry the Tories to victory at the next election. 

Sunak will do everything he can to emulate John Major. But he will also do everything he can to avoid being the next John Major, given Major led the Conservatives to an electoral wipe out in 1997. Those who subscribe to the view that a 1997 style landslide Labour victory is on the cards argue that Sunak simply cannot make up the huge lead Labour currently has in the polls. YouGov found in a December poll that Labour is on 48%, with the Conservatives trailing on 24%.  

Another huge challenge the Conservatives face is one identified by Polis Analysis over two years ago, long before the view of a potential Labour victory was fashionable. According to independent Polis Analysis research, the Liberal Democrats came second to the Conservatives in around 90 seats at the last election. This leaves the Conservatives caught in a pincer movement, with the real possibility of the party shedding support in the south in their traditional heartlands while losing the so-called red wall seats in the north.  

A final reason why the next election may replicate 1997 is due to another golden rule in politics: divided parties do not win elections. William Hague recently said Tory unity is a pre-condition to a 1992 style victory. Yet the Conservatives remain fractured. Just a fortnight ago, supporters of Liz Truss who served in her short-lived Cabinet founded the Conservative Growth Group of 40 Members of Parliament (MP) to champion her ideas. The right-wingers in the Conservative party are also agitating for tax cuts, with one senior MP on the right of the party telling your Polis analyst that Sunak’s economic policies will not deliver a pathway to growth. Rebels have already forced Sunak to amend the Online Safety Bill, back down on planning reform and change course on onshore wind farms. If the Conservative Party cannot come together then Sunak is likely to make himself the next John Major, 1997 style.  

What is in it for you?  

The next election will determine what policy agenda the Government embarks on, with direct consequences for our UK-based readers on a host of issues, from levels of tax to what legislative action is taken in response to nation-wide strikes. A change of course on economic policy could also influence the UK financial markets, which could trigger ripple effects felt across the global economy.  

While both major parties are united in looking to avoid mentioning Brexit and show no sign of changing course, the outcome of the next election could change the UK’s policy towards Europe. Policy change could see a rapprochement between the UK and the EU, particularly if the Labour party wins the next election. UK-EU relations have a discernible impact on economic conditions in Europe given the importance of European trade to the living standards of Europeans.  

There is a lot to play for and irrespective of whether the next election result more closely resembles 1992 or 1997, one thing is for certain: you should pay close attention. 

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