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Boots on the ground dilemma for Rishi as battle 2024 looms

By Phil Briscoe
25 January 2024
Public Affairs
general election

As General Sir Patrick Sanders yesterday warned of a “1937 moment” and the need for conscription, Prime Minister Sunak and his CCHQ team would also have been considering the size of their own volunteer army in the coming election battles of 2024. Like the military, technology has moved on and campaigning is more sophisticated than it was, but also like the armed forces, the size of the campaign army has dwindled.

After 14 years in power and a series of divisive leadership contests and policy arguments, the Conservative Party is in need of regrouping. However, the latest developments suggest quite the opposite with Sir Simon Clarke MP this week calling on Rishi to stand down. Only Sir Graham Brady knows how many letters of confidence have been submitted but varying forecasts suggest it is getting closer to the 53 letters required to trigger a confidence vote.

In the officer class, the Conservative force has suffered a string of by-election blows as MPs have resigned or been removed. Kingswood and Wellingborough follow next month and two more losses for Rishi would not only see that parliamentary majority eroded further still, but it would put this term in office on a par with the 1992-1997 term which saw the Conservatives lose eight MPs in by-elections. I don’t need to point to what then happened in the 1997 election!

Aside from losing elections, there is now an ever-growing band of former members of the government who are on the backbenches and making mischief, with Jenrick, Braverman, Clarke and others going out and making their own topic-specific headlines. Add in the fact that 52 Conservative MPs (more than 1 in 7) have already announced their intention to stand down at the election, and this is a case of officer mutiny on a scale rarely seen.

However, MPs themselves do not win elections, it is the army of campaign activists who go out and knock on doors. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many have laid down their clipboards and are sitting on their hands (if they haven’t deserted to the Reform army), or as former MEP David Campbell Bannerman suggested yesterday, the “…Conservative Party members are on strike.”

To compound problems for the activist base, a series of splinter groups have formed in recent months – the Popular Conservatives launches next month, hot on the heels of the Conservative Democratic Organisation, the New Conservatives and the Liz Truss Growth Commission, and that is before you add in the various caucuses in Parliament. All are active campaign fighters, but are they all fighting for the same outcomes? In this medieval-style battle, election victory will require all of the clan chiefs to stand their banners alongside Chief Sunak. Rumours of a People’s Front of Conservativism have been fanned by John Cleese, now presenting his own show on GB News!

Like armies, political parties know that division equals defeat and many commentators, other Conservative MPs and members believe any form of leadership challenge at this point would be futile and potentially make things worse.

Rishi faces his toughest year in 2024 and a series of electoral challenges that may well culminate in the removal vans arriving at No.10. So, is it too late for him to stage a comeback on the political battlefield?

To mobilise an army (whether on the streets or on the battlefield), the troops need something to fight for, something to fight against and a commander-in-chief they want to follow.

The government are stepping up the rhetoric to mobilise the grassroots and alongside the five pledges, there are clearly plans for tax cuts in the Budget on March 6th, plus the announcement from Bim Afolami today on the “renaissance” of the London financial markets is exactly what Brexiteers have been waiting for and adds to the generally positive economic climate that is now filtering through. Rwanda and the small boats issue remains a huge source of disagreement and could even at some point be the catalyst for a “back me or sack me” election campaign. 

Having something to fight against is as much a problem now as it was in 1997 and I hear the same comments from Conservative voters that I did then, “Blair / Starmer is no different to the Conservatives and not like old Labour.” The Conservative campaign has lined up its artillery on Starmer with the claim that he is a ditherer, indecisive and “flip-flop Starmer” but is that enough to mobilise activists to stop him if they don’t fear him? It is rather like them opening fire on him with Nerf bullets! Would the global community be so ready to stand up in defence of Ukraine if they had been invaded by “flip-flop Putin”?

In May, the country goes to the polls to elect over 2,700 councillors, Police and Crime Commissioners across the country and 11 directly elected mayors, including in London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. It will be a big day for elections and with opinion polls showing a 30% reversal in fortunes for the Conservatives since this last round of elections in 2021, they will see many councillors choosing to retire and will need to work harder than ever to fill those candidate vacancies and send volunteers out into the line of fire. Unless the general election is called for the same day, the May local elections are set to be a rout, which in turn will make life more challenging for Rishi.

If the Budget works, if the troops believe their General and fear the opposing army, then Sunak’s best chance of minimising casualties may well be a May election. Waiting until the last minute is putting hope before reality and while events change opinions, voters are now fatigued and immune to global conflict threats – Ukraine, Taiwan, Yemen, Gaza, even a new Argentinian President who wants the Falklands back – nothing new would surprise the electorate.

Further delays to the election battle will bring other risks, more by-elections, more questions about the General and more economic risks after a potential feel-good boost in the spring.  

Time will tell when the election is and whether we see a Richmond Spring or a wintry retreat from Westminster, but an election in late October on the eve of St Crispin’s Day is just as likely to see the campaign band of brothers opting for a cocoa and an early night as it is them feeling “accurs’d they were not” there!