With UK Prime Minister (PM) Rishi Sunak set to call a general election before the end of the year, polling predictions are pointing to the Conservative Party’s complete failure. Current polling by The Financial Times has Labour taking 44.2 per cent of the votes compared to the Conservatives taking just 24.1 per cent, essentially reversing the previous election. 

This is reminiscent of the 1993 Canadian federal election in which the progressive conservatives were “pincered between the center-left and the populist right,” leaving them with just two MPs, down from a previous majority of 156. 

Although the UK conservatives are unlikely to face the embarrassment of their ideological cousins, predictions by UK political forecasting website Electoral Calculus have Labour ending up with a majority of 260 seats, a damning indictment of the Tories’ time in government. 

Throughout the last five years, the party’s popularity has been on a decline. I see the scandals about mismanagement over COVID and immigration, to name just a couple, to have irreversibly tainted the current government. This has been made worse under Sunak despite the fact that he’s brought, as I see it, a sense of calm to office, as well as halving inflation and cutting National Health Service waiting lists. This has been crucial given the vast backlog of cases that occurred due to the pandemic. However, he has overseen a shift to the hard-right style of populism, making him the most right-wing PM since Margaret Thatcher, a highly controversial PM herself.

But, with election defeat seemingly inevitable, there is great opportunity for the Conservative Party. I believe that for the party to be taken seriously, its members need to take a serious look at themselves, reshaping their values away from reactionary populist rhetoric aimed at appealing to the far right, and instead, embrace moderate and ambitious politics that appeal to voters nationwide.

A new face for English Conservatism 

The first step to embracing moderacy comes with a leadership change. I believe Sunak’s greatest failure is being unable to empathize with voters. An example that comes to mind is his $1,723 (£1,000) bet with Piers Morgan — a controversial journalist for British news known for focusing on generating “clickbait” over proper investigative reporting — was over the success of a bill colloquially referred to as “the Rwanda bill.” The bill, if passed, would send migrants illegally entering the country to Rwanda.

This episode showcases how he makes politics seem more like a game, by betting on sending migrants to a repressive dictatorship. This is exactly what I believe so many people hate about the Tories: they see the party as the privileged few legislating policy on people they do not understand. 

Instead, in Sunak’s place, the party must do all it can to bring Rory Stewart back to politics. Stewart is a former Member of Parliament who resigned from the Conservative Party following the 2019 election of Boris Johnson as PM, and I believe he is exactly the kind of moderate politician the UK needs. 

Stewart is best described as a “one-nation [conservative,]” as he believes in a society that works together to develop social and economic programs that benefit the ordinary person. He is a man unafraid to look across the political spectrum, and his balanced discussion on Israel and Palestine in a segment on “How to cover Israel-Gaza,” from his podcast The Rest is Politics reflects a politician who understands neither the right nor left has all the answers but that both must work together for a common understanding. 

In addition to bringing a bipartisan viewpoint, I see Stewart bringing a strong sense of ambition. When he entered politics in 2010, he dreamed of reshaping the British constitution and unlocking the nation’s “untapped” potential. This kind of ambition would not only shift the Conservative Party away from controversial policies like the Rwanda migrant bill, which I believe does nothing to help the average voter and reaffirms the weakening status quo of the British government. 

Stewart’s ambition also contrasts with what I see as the reactionary style politics of Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which seems more focused on saying whatever the Conservatives are not and hoping voters like it. 

Giving power to voters 

From a new moderate position under Stewart, the Conservative Party then needs to become the party of the people again. In the 2019 UK general election, the party did well because it took seats in the Labour heartlands where people switched allegiances believing the Conservatives could benefit them more. 

But, as of January 2024, there are about 6.4 million people on Universal Credit — a monthly payment from the government to UK adults with low incomes, which also takes the form of social housing. During the last general election in 2019, only 2,3 million people were on Universal Credit — illustrating why people feel betrayed by a government that has left them worse off and, hence, are going back to Labour. But how can the conservatives reverse this?

I believe the Conservatives need to push for what Stewart refers to as “hyper-localized democracy,” where the federal government gives power to local governments to enact change in their spheres of influence. This way, ordinary people who know their local issues best have the power to fix those issues, away from the mess of bureaucracy. Essentially, the central government gives money to local governments and allows them to invest that money in the way their local knowledge deems best. 

The way I see it, the current Conservative government has shown that there are limits to the success of the career politicians of the Westminster bubble — the Members of Parliament isolated from outside life — and that the Conservatives can no longer focus on centralized government and must embrace localized government instead. 

Ultimately, the Conservatives cannot afford to entrench themselves into populist right ideals. A Statistica poll from January 2024 found that only eight per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 were planning on voting for the Conservative Party in the upcoming election. If Conservatives want to entice younger voters to the party, they must focus on rebuilding their values from a position of moderacy — whereby they are not seen as the party of the elite but the party that puts that trust in British people to implement change how they see fit. 

Felix Hughes is a first-year student at Trinity College studying humanities.