Under Sunak, can the right-wing Conservatives win another UK election?

The ruling party, which held a divisive conference this week, has been in power for 13 years but is struggling in opinion polls.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks at the Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester, England [File: Hannah McKay/Reuters]

In the middle of this week’s Conservative Party conference, a United Kingdom research company published a survey on attitudes towards Britain’s ruling party.

“Useless”, “rubbish”, “bad”, “incompetent” and “corrupt” were the most prominent terms that appeared on a Savanta UK word cloud after it asked 2,000 people to describe the right-wing party, led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

In power since 2010, the party has long been a beleaguered force.

Currently on its fifth leader in 13 years, it has been buffeted by several scandals, high-profile resignations and accusations of incompetence. And if its plunging poll ratings are to be believed, the party is on course to suffer a chastening defeat to the opposition Labour Party at the next general election.

“They might want to try something other than populist messages – stopping small [refugee and migrant] boats and abandoning climate commitments – and focus on the cost-of-living crisis and have a better understanding of what people actually need and want now,” James Mitchell, a professor at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, told Al Jazeera.

“The populist approach does not appear to be working no matter which iteration is tried.”

During her conference speech, Home Secretary Suella Braverman double-downed on her anti-immigration stance by warning that a “hurricane” of mass migration was heading Britain’s way.

Braverman has made repelling refugees and migrants trying to cross the English Channel her priority, prompting many on the left to accuse her of deliberately stoking fears on immigration.

Such rhetoric, together with Sunak’s policies regarding the environment – which last month saw him accused of rolling back crucial climate targets – have polarised a country still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, a sharp cost-of-living crisis and its divisive exit from the European Union in 2020.

But while “populism” has yet to reverse the party’s desperate position in the polls, the Conservatives are hoping to benefit just in time for the election itself, which is scheduled to take place no later than January 2025.

“They’re hoping to get back some of those more culturally conservative voters who, owing to the dire state of the economy and public services, are now tempted to vote for opposition parties,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told Al Jazeera.

They also want to win over the few voters who had been tempted by the “radical right-wing populist Reform party”, he said.


In Scotland, where the devolved Scottish National Party (SNP) government has been at loggerheads with the UK government over its wish to hold a second referendum on Scottish independence, the Conservatives hope that their position on Britain’s North Sea oil and gas industry will eat into the SNP’s current stranglehold on Scottish politics.

In the UK Parliament in Westminster, the SNP currently hold the vast majority of Scottish seats.

In September, Sunak gave the go-ahead for extraction to begin off Scotland at Rosebank, the largest untapped oilfield in the North Sea, despite opposition from Scotland’s SNP first minister, Humza Yousaf, who accused the Conservatives of “climate denial”.

“The [UK] election is all to play for,” said Scottish Conservative voter Iain McGill, who has also stood as a candidate for the party.

“For example, the Conservatives want to get every last drop of our oil and gas and use it. The [SNP] want to close down this massively important part of the economy, shed the jobs and investment and energy security they bring, to import it from overseas.”

But with the party about 20 points behind Labour in the polls, hopes are rising among Britain’s anti-Conservative voters.

“I’m not happy with how the UK government has been treating refugees, migrants and asylum seekers,” said Sarah Unsworth, a project manager from Bristol in southwestern England. “I think they have been using some quite damaging, divisive and poisonous language and normalising something which is quite harmful to our society.”

Unsworth told Al Jazeera that she plans to cast her ballot for the Labour Party but added: “My vote would be very much against the Conservative Party rather than a vote in support of Labour.”

Sunak has sparked an uproar in many quarters with his conference speech on Wednesday.

He announced he is scrapping the northern English leg of the so-called HS2 high-speed rail project and upset some among the LGBTQ community by stating that Britons should not be “bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be”.

The stakes for his party are high, Bale said, explaining that once power is lost in Westminster, it’s usually lost for many years.

“Look at the [UK election] pattern we’ve seen since 1979,” he said. “A Conservative government for 18 years, followed by a Labour government for 13 years, then a Conservative or Conservative-led government for 13 years. It doesn’t bode well, … does it?”

Source: Al Jazeera