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On the inevitability of change

Public Affairs
On the inevitability of change
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By Moray Macdonald, Group Head of Public Policy

Political change is in the air. A post-COVID political fallout seems to be under way in London, Edinburgh, Wellington, Dublin and Brussels. Moray Macdonald, our Group Head of Public Policy, ponders whether the Tories in the UK can survive and looks to other countries to see if there an inevitable end to a party’s time in Government.

Political turbulence in the UK

You don’t need to be a political expert to understand that the state of the UK Government is deeply unhealthy. If the Conservatives continue amassing new leaders at this rate there could be more backbench Tory ex-PMs by the 2025 election than there are Lib Dem MPs.

Labour’s long-term polling lead has opened up to 20 points, give or take—that’s not merely a Labour landslide, it’s total Tory annihilation—and the mood in the Tory party is starting to feel very glum indeed. Yet just last week Conservative pollster Isaac Levido found that “a third of the electorate is soft” in how they might vote, that here’s no real fire for a Starmer-led government. That Labour’s apparent lead may simply be an increasingly desperate howl from the electorate for somebody, anybody to demonstrate a little competence.

To help boost morale Rishi Sunak invited former leader William Hague to join the Cabinet for dinner. Hague reportedly compared the Tories position today with their position in 1990 when Labour were often 20 points ahead in the polls, Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was descending into chaos, the economy was tanking, and political dramas were engulfing the government. Hague went on to tell the gathering, “we got a new leader who was more popular than the party and won in 1992. It’s a remarkably similar circumstance”.

There are some similarities between 1992 and now but at this point in the cycle John Major, the leader he’s referring to, had net satisfaction ratings of plus 40% – compared to Sunak’s minus 20%. Even Boris managed to scrape into positive territory.

The reality is that the PM may be a sensible pair of hands but he’s simply not that popular. Not in a party riven by the way he took office and not with an electorate suspicious that his vast wealth so effectively insulates him from their day-to-day concerns that the King feels more relatable.

If Conservatives are to take hope from the idea Labour’s lead is soft, they should remember that such hope hinges entirely on them demonstrating a level of focus and discipline they currently seem ill able to recognise, let alone exercise. It’s also worth the Party remembering that they won a huge majority in 2019 with a mandate for change; ignoring that promise is undoubtedly part of the reason they are now performing so badly in the polls.

What’s remarkable about this moment is how the UK’s experience of political uncertainty and upheaval are being reflected across Europe and the world:

Political fortunes turning upside-down Down Under

In New Zealand, despite Jacinda Ardern’s global adulation, the Labour party have trailed in the polls for over a year and the National Party, with their coalition partners ACT, look set to sweep to victory in October. The public are calling for change and unusually Ms Ardern decided to jump rather than be pushed. She stepped down saying that she “no longer has enough in the tank”. It’s yet to be seen whether a change in leader with Chris Hipkins as PM will be enough to save Labour.

Labour rising in Scotland

Despite the SNP remaining easily in the lead in Scottish voting intentions again, we can feel change in the air after nearly 16 years in Government. The SNP continue to benefit from Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership combined with the lack of an obvious Government in waiting. The slow rise of Labour is putting that dominance at risk, and most commentators agree that Nicola Sturgeon is unlikely to lead the SNP into the next Scottish Parliament election.

Irish power is shifting in the Oireachtas

In Ireland decades of orderly shifts in power between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael look to be coming to an end. Research at University College Dublin suggest nearly half of Irish people do not trust the current government to be honest and truthful — a Sinn Féin administration in 2025 is entirely possible. That would be a historic win for a party that has never held power in the Republic.

Nothing is certain in the EU leadership either

Sometimes, when the desire for change is clear but the nature of it is less so, then being, or appearing to be, non-partisan is what counts. In 2019 Ursula von der Leyen was chosen as the new President of the European Commission, in part due to the fact she wasn’t a “leading candidate” for any of the political groupings. As the 2024 elections loom, shifting centres of political gravity and influence mean her credentials as incumbent position her as the natural continuity and compromise candidate should a fractured chamber once again complicate the clear reading of a mandate from the election results.

Sometimes it’s clear the public really are fed up with more of the same, that change really is inevitable. Instinctif works in partnership with our clients to help them understand and navigate change. Whether you secure the services of our London, Brussels, Berlin or Dublin-based Public Policy practice, we’re proud that Instinctif Partners’ prides itself on a politically diverse offer and cross-party connections—in London our senior consultants with a background in the Labour Party are already helping businesses engage with and plan for an incoming Labour administration.

Thanks to Instinctif Partners’ Declan Hegarty in Dublin and Adrian Garcia in Brussels for their contribution to this piece.

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