DAN HODGES: Get a grip, Rishi - or this could easily become the Tories' last ever election

The Tory MP I was speaking to enjoys a majority in the tens of thousands. But when I informed him on Wednesday that Rishi Sunak was about to call the General Election, his reaction was terse. ‘Oh, God!’ he exclaimed.

That was one of the more positive responses. A second MP greeted the news by bursting into tears. A third launched into a scathing attack on Downing Street and the PM’s senior advisers. ‘They’re just a bunch of f***ing posh public schoolboys who haven’t got a clue and are going to see the party destroyed!’ he raged.

He then phoned 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady, informing him he would be submitting a letter of no-confidence in Sunak. Brady replied that as the King had already agreed a dissolution of Parliament, nothing could be done.

I was working as a Commons researcher the day John Major called the election in 1997 that ushered in the New Labour era. The mood back then among Conservative MPs was of resignation, but relief.

‘We need a break,’ one told me. ‘We’ve been in power too long. It’ll do us good to be out of office for a bit to recharge our batteries.’

That is not the feeling in the parliamentary Tory Party this morning. Because many believe the election of 2024 will not be an ordinary campaign. In fact, they fear it may well be their party’s last campaign.

‘This could be it. We’re not facing defeat – we’re facing complete obliteration,’ one Minister told me grimly. ‘I can see a scenario now where we wake up on July 5, Starmer has a 200-seat majority and there is no Conservative Party.’

This may seem apocalyptic talk. But this isn’t just grounded in pessimism – but a hard-headed analysis of the prevailing electoral landscape.

There will be many twists and turns over the next few weeks. But one golden political rule has already been broken.

Conventional wisdom in both major parties held that as the election neared, and voters’ attention turned to the choice they’d have to make, the opinion polls would begin to narrow.

The opposite happened. A year ago, Sir Keir Starmer enjoyed a 16-point average poll lead. On the day the election was called it was 21 points – a gap that, if reflected on July 4, would give the Conservatives 92 seats and Labour 479.

Again, the conventional wisdom is that Labour’s lead will diminish during the campaign. But with the rules of politics being rewritten, every significant data point over the past year has told the same story.

Polls. By-elections. Local council elections. Party canvass returns. All indicate that voters have already made up their minds. And they want Rishi Sunak and his party booted out of office and out of their lives for good.

‘The key question is can we get voters to engage during the campaign,’ one Minister explained to me. ‘Can we get them to give us a hearing? If we do, we’ve got a half-decent story to tell. And we can start to claw back ground.’

But what if the voters won’t give the Tories that hearing?

Another factor eroding the confidence of Conservative MPs is the perceived political competence – or incompetence – of Sunak and his team.

In 30 years of advising and writing about politics, I’ve never seen a more catastrophic and ham-fisted election launch than Sunak’s rain sodden roll-out. The man who was recently trying to convince the nation he has the wisdom and perspicacity to navigate the dangers of the next decade showed he is incapable of even reading a weather forecast.

The announcement also trampled over his own good news story about falling inflation figures, knocking them from the bulletins. And was swiftly followed by the first major policy statement of the campaign – an admission that no Rwanda flights would take off this side of the election.

‘The campaign is our last chance to save ourselves,’ another Minister told me, ‘and look how it’s started. And will it get any better? Does anyone seriously think Rishi has the popular touch that will make people think, “Actually, I got it wrong. He’s a great bloke who really understands me. I’ll give him one more go?”’

There is one other reason Tory MPs’ doom-laden prognostications are valid. Which is that those criticising Sunak’s decision to call a snap election are wrong.

As bad as things are for his party, Sunak rightly realised that if he tried to hold out any longer, they would only get worse.

Hospital waiting lists. Small-boat arrivals. A public spending squeeze coupled with spiralling debt. The PM had banked his re-election on delivering five key pledges. And he finally came to recognise that however long he clung on, he was not going to meet them.

The fact is, his decision to call the election was not a reckless gamble. It was merely the action of a man who saw he had finally run out of time and run out of road, with the result he has started the campaign with his electoral coalition teetering on the brink of collapse.

The Red Wall sees only betrayal over immigration and levelling up. Blue Wall Tories see an abandonment of Thatcherite principles of thrift, reward for hard work, and traditional values of the family. And the floating centre has simply had enough of 14 years of Conservative rule, and just yearns for some form of change.

It’s true that few people are actively enthused by the anaemic offering from Keir Starmer and his troops. And Starmer himself provokes genuine antipathy, especially among those who turned away from his party in 2019.

But that will not be enough to save the Tories from annihilation.

As this campaign opens, there is a dangerous mood in the air for the Conservative Party. People seem to be preparing not so much to elect a new government as make a statement. Austerity. The cost of living crisis. The perceived failure of Brexit. Covid. The NHS implosion. The collapse of the borders.

It feels as if a reckoning is coming. Which means Rishi Sunak needs to get a grip, and fast. Because if he doesn’t, this really could be the Tories last campaign.

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