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Since the 2024 UK local elections were held last week, Rishi Sunak has claimed that the general election result is "not a foregone conclusion", and that there may be a hung parliament at the next general election. See for example this BBC article.

Voters and politicians alike across the spectrum appear to find this an unlikely outcome - according to this Telegraph article, 16% of voters believe a hung parliament is the most likely outcome. 53% believe in a Labour majority at the next election.

Indeed, Labour has consistently been polling at around 43-45% of the vote for over a year and win ~475 seats, well over the 326 threshold for a majority.

So, why has Sunak made this claim that seems unlikely to come to fruition?

  • Sunak could legitimately believe this hung parliament prediction - in which case, what reasoning has he, or others around him, given to support this claim?

  • Sunak may not believe this prediction, but believes it is politically advantageous to talk of a hung parliament rather than a Labour supermajority. If this is the case, why would he do this? Is there any evidence to suggest this is a more politically advantageous message to preach?

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    For what the claim is worth, it's based on this (flawed) projection by Sky News news.sky.com/story/…
    – origimbo
    Commented May 9 at 14:44
  • He may be right. Nobody can exactly foresee the future not even polls or post results. Commented May 9 at 15:26
  • What voters believe to be the outcome of an election (as a poll) is not a reliable source of information. People who engage with election polls are disproportionately people who care about the elections, which is (a) likely leading to a win/lose attitude more so than expecting a tie (which is essentially lowering the purpose of the election, which is something people who care about elections don't like) and (b) not indicative of the majority of people who actually vote. You can only try and correct for that in your poll data to a point.
    – Flater
    Commented May 10 at 1:37
  • Politicians appearing optimistic about incoming elections seem to be the rule. It would be hard to find an example of a politician saying that an election is going to go bad for him or his party.
    – Pere
    Commented May 10 at 23:01

3 Answers 3

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Rishi Sunak's party performed badly in the local elections and is widely expected to do the same at a general election. He has to acknowledge this, but if he says "well, everyone, we're heading for near-certain oblivion" then he'd have a hard time convincing others to vote or campaign for the Conservative party, or support his agenda as PM in the mean time. To some extent, since nobody else really wants to be leader right now, it's also preferable to the party bigwigs if Sunak stays in place, cheerily steering the party to a noble defeat, and then hands over the leadership. So it's in his interest to try to run a "normal" positive campaign.

If he said that the Conservatives were currently on track to win, people would not believe him and he would look deluded.

If he said that Labour were overwhelmingly likely to win, then he would be in line with what most polls have been showing, but this wouldn't be a palatable message for Conservative MPs and activists. They could be demoralized and feel that there was nothing to fight for. In turn, that could have the effect of reducing Tory turnout, as well as giving ammunition to his internal party critics who already believe him to be an ineffective leader.

As it is, he is clutching at the possibility that there is some movement in the polls or that a Labour victory would be short of a proper Commons majority. Sunak is indicating that the game isn't over yet - results showing a possible hung Parliament now, could mean that by the time an election happens, it is plausible that the Conservatives might get a narrow victory, or at least gain enough MPs to give Labour a tough time running a government. It may be a slim hope but he'd rather put that message out than say that there is no hope.

In terms of the polling, the projection of a hung parliament is based on the recent council and mayoral elections in England. For example, Michael Thrasher has an analysis for Sky News which reaches this conclusion under certain assumptions - including that

  1. the 'swing' between the main parties in England in the council elections would be replicated in the general election;
  2. the same effect would hold in Scotland and Wales, with the share for the SNP and Plaid Cymru holding steady at 2019 levels; and
  3. the swing would be uniform across the country.

This has been criticized by Peter Kellner in Prospect and Stephen Bush in the FT, who suggest that in reality,

  • many people who voted Green or Lib Dem in the council elections would vote tactically for Labour in the general,
  • Labour achieved outsized swings in some important areas in England, which would yield a larger number of seats at the expense of the Conservatives,
  • more Reform candidates could erode the Tory vote (whereas there were few of them standing for council seats), and
  • Labour is likely to do better against the SNP than in the last election.

I would expect that Rishi Sunak knows all this, but the position is poor enough for him that he has to grasp at any positive data, even if it's tenuous. Behind the scenes, he must be aware that the game for him is now to limit the extent of the loss, rather than to actually win. But that's not a message that really gets a lot of volunteers out knocking doors in the rain.

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  • Does "staying positive" also help to try and increase donations to the Conservatives? Political parties accept over £93m in donations in 2023 says in 2023 the Conservative and Unionist Party (GB) accepted £9,726,789 in donations, which is the largest of all the parties. Commented May 9 at 22:18
  • For the Tories I think that could be true for small donations from local members, and the contribution from associations/clubs. Larger donors - the ones who really moved the needle for the Tories in those stats, compared to other parties - would be looking less to Sunak's public statements, as they're generally pretty deeply engaged with the party and with specific favoured personalities within it.
    – alexg
    Commented May 10 at 14:38
  • Sunak is also gambling big time on the Rwanda scheme to pay off, assuming he can actually get at least a few thousand illegal immigrants sent out of the country. Commented May 10 at 22:46
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alexg's answer is excellent, but in addition there's the mechanics of FPTP elections and the nature of campaigning and a strong tendency to campaign and vote negatively. The Conservatives are not only way behind Labour in terms of vote share, they're also perilously close to being overtaken by ReformUK.

At the moment they are the party that tends to come second in places that they don't win, and regularly squeeze - or at least attempt to squeeze - minor opponents by campaigning along the lines of "it's between us and Labour, don't waste your vote on (insert minor party of choice here on a per-constituency basis)". Retaining that second place as far as possible is important for the campaign for the local elections in 2025, and beyond to the general election in 2029-ish. Failure to do so means that instead of squeezing opponents, they'll be squeezed in future. And so while Sunak can't sensibly talk about victory, he has to paint a credible picture where his party remains the dominant Opposition, from which a comeback next time remains a viable prospect. The alternative is that anti-Labour sentiment clusters around the other parties, not necessarily because they have better policies, but because they're the most likely to unseat new Labour MPs down the line.

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Because the Conservatives believe that their surprise majority in 2015 was in a large part due to their scaremongering about a potential hung Parliament and the prospect of a Labour-SNP pact, and Rishi Sunak is attempting to replicate that strategy. The Tories were polling behind Labour for most of the 2010-15 Parliament, and although polls narrowed prior to the election itself giving the Conservatives a narrow lead in many polls, it was expected that the election would result in a hung Parliament with Labour, under Ed Miliband, then able to form a minority government.

The Conservatives aggressively campaigned on this point, using adverts such at this one:

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which shows Ed Miliband (then Labour leader) in the pocket of Alex Salmond (then SNP leader). Since the SNP - and the separation of Scotland from the UK - is unpopular in England this idea was seen as a strong attack on Labour, often framed as a choice between "Strong and Stable" government under Cameron or a "Coalition of Chaos". This continued despite Ed Miliband explicitly ruling out a coalition with the SNP.

When the election result came in, the Lib Dem's had collapsed from 57 seats to just 8, and Cameron's Conservatives had narrowly managed to obtain a majority increasing their number of seats from 306 to 330. It is questionable whether this result is actually attributable to this attack line or not, but Conservatives widely believe that it was an important and successful strategy.

Sunak is now in a far worse position than Cameron. He is personally hugely unpopular, as his party, their polling position is much worse, and there has been no narrowing of the polls as the expected date of an election approaches. His attempt to point to a hung parliament, then, should be seen as a desperate attempt to resurrect a previously successful strategy even though the circumstances are substantially different to those under which it apparently worked.

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