(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak’s election strategists can see their nightmare scenario playing out right in front of them.
The UK prime minister’s governing Conservatives were wounded in two places in recent local elections: Working-class voters in the north of England returned to the opposition Labour Party, while disillusioned middle classes in the south deserted them for the Liberal Democrats.
Conservative ministers and advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity discussing private concerns, said they fear this is the post-Brexit “realignment” of voters in England coming back to bite them. If repeated at a general election, due in January 2025 at the latest, the result would be stark: a Labour landslide.
In 2019, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson won big by conquering seats in Labour’s “Red Wall” while holding onto more typical Tory votes elsewhere. Four tumultuous years later, Sunak finds himself in danger of pleasing neither group.
One Cabinet minister compared Sunak to the zombie-slayer played by Pedro Pascal in the apocalyptic HBO drama The Last of Us. The walking dead haunting Sunak are a series of seemingly never-ending policy and political crises, and ongoing unrest among warring factions of Tory lawmakers. After every shot he fires trying to take one down, another appears, the minister said.
The scale of Sunak’s task was laid bare this week. Back from the G-7 summit in Japan and hoping to focus on meeting his “priorities” for Britain, he was instead battered by record migration numbers, worse-than-expected inflation figures, and yet more scandals involving Johnson and Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
The scariest issue for Downing Street was migration. Using strong rhetoric is seen by Sunak’s team as vital to keeping hold of Brexit voters — hence the months-long focus on “stopping the boats,” targeting asylum seekers crossing the English Channel. But it leaves the Tories vulnerable with those core southern, middle class, anti-Brexit voters in the so-called “Blue Wall.”
Ahead of figures that showed annual net migration hitting a record 606,000, No. 10 feared it had made a strategic error by deprioritizing legal migration, according to government officials. It hurried out a new crackdown on the families of foreign students before the official data emerged on Thursday.
The harder the line on Rwanda deportation flights or threats to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, the more likely the Tories will alienate long-term supporters. The fear is that they will migrate toward the Liberal Democrats — just like in the local elections. There is a real danger that the Tories enter election year with a migration policy that leaves no group of voters happy, one aide said.
The squeeze is already in evidence in southern marginal seats. Former Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, whose leafy Esher and Walton constituency is a Liberal Democrat target, announced this week he will stand down at the next election.
Sunak decided this week to stand by Braverman, the hard-line Cabinet minister in charge of borders who faced scrutiny over a speeding ticket. That avoided all-out civil war with the Tory right wing — but kept Braverman, a polarizing figure, in the political spotlight.
Read More: UK Speeding-Ticket Row Shows Sunak’s Hard Road to Election Day
The other issue that refused to die this week was inflation, which fell into single digits but exceeded all estimates, raising expectations of further interest-rate hikes.
Sunak’s overarching aim is to curb the rate of inflation by resisting calls for tax cuts and public spending giveaways until global factors improve. Yet core prices are still surging, meaning further interest rate hikes are now expected. It’s a strong possibility that 2024 begins with this key economic indicator higher than the premier wants.
Read More: UK’s Hunt Comfortable With Recession to Bring Down Inflation
Stubborn inflation also exposes the Tories politically, another aide said. It keeps an acute cost-of-living crisis going, making working class voters more likely to return to Labour. It also means no tax cuts any time soon and more pain for mortgage-holders, again nudging wealthier voters toward the Liberal Democrats in seats where Labour trails a distant third.
The threat in both directions runs through almost every major policy.
On Brexit, Sunak extols the benefits of leaving the European Union, words that often horrify Tory Remainers. Yet some hardcore Brexiteers see Sunak’s Windsor Framework deal with the EU as a sellout, and cry betrayal over his decision not to sunset legacy EU laws.
On housing, the Tories did promise a huge house-building program, but Sunak has now pivoted to rhetoric about preserving the green belt, areas of protected land around towns and cities. The result of this incoherence is that people who want houses built will vote Labour, while the not-in-my-back-yard brigade (“NIMBYs”) will turn to the Liberal Democrats, according to one government official.
On industrial action, Sunak refused to bow to union demands for big pay rises, instead introducing new anti-strike legislation. That battle was catnip to some right-wing MPs, but polls suggest many voters are unhappy with the government’s approach and its consequences for public services.
Conservative officials say they are focused on preventing losses in the Blue Wall. That will mean talking up chances of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition after the general election, a prospect they say will lead to higher taxes. Other Tories note this is a hard argument to make when the tax burden has soared to a 70-year high under Sunak.
Sophie Stowers, from the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, said the Conservative coalition from 2019 was now challenging the party and the prime minister would eventually face a choice.
“The Tories are going to have to face up to the fact that this is a group of people with divergent preferences on a number of issues. It will be difficult to come up with an electoral strategy that pleases socially conservative voters in favor of redistributive economic policy in the north, and more socially liberal but economically conservative voters in the shires,” she said.
“He’ll ultimately have to pick a side to please.”
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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