Voices: A ‘punishment election’? This now feels like revenge for the past 14 years

Heading for the exit: Rishi Sunak’s hopes of gaining in the polls have been damaged by yet another scandal (Reuters)
Heading for the exit: Rishi Sunak’s hopes of gaining in the polls have been damaged by yet another scandal (Reuters)

Is this the most vindictive general election ever? There’s reason to think so. The former Conservative MP and junior minister Paul Scully puts it rather well, calling it a “punishment election” in which the Tories – and particularly their leader – are coming in for a vengeful kneecapping in a fortnight’s time.

It’s not the kind of reception that any party worker knocking on doors in the drizzle dreams about, or admits to, but Scully can say it as it is because he has ducked out of any doomed attempt to hang on to his Croydon constituency: “It feels like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and we’re not millipedes. We’ve only got two feet. There’s only so much capacity. When you have got effectively what is a punishment election, when you’ve got people that are wanting to punish the Conservatives and so they’re going to be looking under the microscope at absolutely everything that we do, and then we’re making it easy for them to punish us even further on that basis.”

Indeed so, with a particularly grubby betting scandal widening hour by hour, voters are being continually reminded about one of the reasons why they’d like to give the Tories a damn good thrashing. If I were a cabinet minister or other high-profile Conservative politician I’d be worried about them meting out especially harsh punishment.

The numbers speak for themselves – even on the more optimistic poll ratings and a routine level of voter turnout of, say, two-thirds, only about one in six Britons will bother to vote for them this year.

This, you may recall, is the Conservative and Unionist Party, which dominated British government during the 20th century, and has been rightly described as the most successful democratic political organisation in the history of civilisation.

Now they are about to be destroyed, and, most worryingly surely for them, are already virtually extinct among the young. Come polling day they will be wiped out in London and every great city, as well as across huge swathes of Scotland, the North, the Midlands and the West Country. The home counties, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and the south coast seem set to fall. There will be a record number of Tory lost deposits. In more places, the Liberal Democrats and Reform will emerge as the challengers to a Labour MP. Only a few rural hideouts remain.

No Conservative government will ever have gone down to such a defeat – one that seems to be designed to teach the party a lesson. Like a swarm of angry wasps, the individuals that make up the British electorate seem determined to get their sting into the rump of the Tory party, irrespective of the consequences.

More than any other, the 2024 general election actually feels more like a by-election. Conventionally and historically, British general elections are decided on relatively modest swings in the public mood – 3, 4 or 5 per cent of the voters changing allegiance was sufficient.

The 1945 election and the Blair landslide in 1997 were exceptional – above 10 per cent, but this one seems set to be perhaps double even those figures, albeit distorted by the intervention of Nigel Farage and Reform UK.

It’s like the record-breaking by-elections over the past couple of years in areas such as North Yorkshire and Devon, with shifts of 20 per cent plus. This is indeed unprecedented and suggests an almost blind determination to “get the Tories out”, or #GTTO as they say. A surge in the last few hours before voter registration closed is also suggestive of a coming earthquake.

It takes some imagination to comprehend Labour possessed of a crushing majority of 200 plus MPs. If he wanted Keir Starmer could rejoin the EU and abolish the pound the next day, never mind just harmonising veterinary procedures. Rishi Sunak himself might lose his seat – to Labour. I’m not sure how he will cope with that humiliation.

In his recent public appearances, including the latest BBC Question Time special, the pressures do seem to be getting to him. He seems frustrated, both with the hopeless clowns on his own side as well as the public. He’s been tetchy, even annoyed, and sometimes gives the impression that he’s in charge of the voters who are simply slow learners. It’s making matters worse.

He says he wants to be judged on his record. The voters, inconveniently, aren’t that impressed, and they would also like to look back on the last 14 years – pointless austerity, sleaze, scandals, Dominic Cummings, Partygate, tractor porn, the mini-Budget, Brexit – the lot.

It’s by no means all Sunak’s fault, and it must be galling for him to be carrying the can for the series of mistakes and misbehaviour that accumulated and were often caused by David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. But when the music stops, it’s over. Won’t be long now.