Most Conservative activists of my acquaintance are not exactly putting their backs into this election campaign. They share a general expectation that the next government will be formed by Labour. Who can blame them? The polling guru Sir John Curtice says there is a 99% probability, with few of his peers willing to go below 90%.

Six months ago, their conversational opener was “do you think we can win?”. Two weeks into the general election campaign that has bifurcated into “What’s Starmer really like?” and “how bad is it going to be for us?”.

Sir Keir is treated as an inscrutable inevitability. After a few unconvincing stabs at his “leftie lawyer” credentials and former support of Corbyn, interest in him soon fades into “Isn’t Angela Rayner ghastly?”. 

Conversation is livelier about how bad the anticipated Tory defeat is going to be. It is an important question because the future of the Conservative party, if any, and the long-term future of the country, probably, will both hang on the size of the parliamentary Conservative party left standing. The spectrum of defeat stretches all the way from “a Canadian-style wipeout” (two seats) to largest party in a Hung Parliament with more than 200 MPs. 

Tories have been scaring themselves with the spectre of “Canada 1993” for months. In Canada, the newly appointed leader of the ruling Progressive Conservatives called an election in the face of a challenge from a populist party on the right called Reform. The Conservatives went down from 167 MPs to just two.

The UK Parliament is almost twice as big as Canada’s and there is no point in making direct arithmetical comparisons. The two nation’s Conservative parties and their histories differ too. 

For anything like that to happen here, Labour would need a lead over the Conservatives of at least 33%, a margin which has not yet been achieved in any of the sensational opinion polls favouring UK Labour. 

For more than two years opinion polls here have pointed consistently to a Conservative defeat, with only something between 100 and 200 Tory MPs returned to the next parliament. Holding more than 200 seats would be regarded as a great performance in the present circumstances. Sunak might even be allowed to resign with dignity if the Conservatives hold 165 seats, the marker at which John Major went down to defeat by Tony Blair. 

There are 94 constituencies, or their geographic equivalents, in Britain which the Conservatives have held at every election since the Second World War. “Wipeout” for Sunak’s Conservatives would constitute the erosion of this bastion, with the number of Tory MPs reduced to double figures. 

Disillusioned Tories, such as Lord (David) Frost and The Daily Mail, are commissioning the most damaging surveys of their party’s prospects. MRP, or Multilevel Regression and Post-stratification polls, which build local factors into a large survey sample, are generating the worst results for the Conservatives.  The latest MRP this weekend suggested the Conservatives will be left with between 66 and 72 MPs, while Labour would 476 to 493. A potential overall majority for Sir Keir of over 300. 

The far right believe a catastrophic defeat on this scale would give them their best chances of taking over the party. This weekend, Nigel Farage outlined in The Sunday Times what he is hoping to achieve with his party: “Why do you think I called it Reform? Because of what happened in Canada… where Reform comes from the outside, because the Canadian Conservatives had become social democrats like our mob here. It took them time, it took them two elections, they became the biggest party on the centre-right. They then absorbed what was left of the Conservative party into them and rebranded.”

On Monday afternoon, Farage’s ambition to break and take over the Conservative party became explicit as he appointed himself leader of Reform and announced his intention to stand in Clacton, a seat previously held by UKIP. 

Farage is not alone. With their recent pro-Trump outbursts, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson each seem to have a vision of smashing up the party which made them Prime Minister, then restructuring it to achieve their restoration to Number Ten. Both ex-Prime Ministers are in denial about the damage they have each inflicted personally on the Conservative brand.

In 2019, Boris Johnson built his majority of 365 Conservative MPs with the promise of getting Brexit done and fear of Jeremy Corbyn. Five years later, every component of that victory has decayed. 

Nobody wants to talk about Brexit in this campaign. It has delivered few benefits and at least two thirds of the electorate now think it was a mistake. Farage has switched to campaigning on immigration. Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats want to embarrass the “yes” voters who are switching back to them. 

Much is being made of so-called “red wall” voters who voted for Brexit and for Boris Johnson but who drifted away in recent local and byelections. Those manning phone banks for the Tories report that there has been a similar erosion on the other side of the argument. Loyal Conservatives, both Remain voters and those who took their lead from party activists, are now coldly furious with the direction they have been led and the state of the party which has resulted. Many of those who have pledged to support the Conservatives are flatly refusing to say how they will vote. 

The party leader of course cannot admit that he is campaigning to manage defeat even though that is palpably what his campaign strategy is designed to achieve. Every announcement – from national service to pensions to Kemi Badenoch’s war on woke – aims to peel back elderly defectors to Reform and to further alienate younger voters. 

None of it is making much impression on the wider electorate. Nor have the negative attacks on the Tories’ opponents moved the dial.

There is not much love for Rishi Sunak within his party. They never elected him as their leader. He shocked them with his snap election announcement, only to discover that they were unprepared for the fight. 

Nor has the public warmed to him yet. His opinion poll ratings are worse than Starmer’s . The Labour leader is just as well known, having been a national party leader for longer.   

Unlike Starmer, who goes out and about flanked by Rachel Reeves, Angela Rayner or other ministers, Sunak has been left to campaign on his own, gamely insisting he is having the time of his life meeting people. 

One-on-one debates might even things up between the two leaders, which is why Sunak wants more than the two confrontations Starmer has agreed to. 

The unpopularity of the Conservatives is mostly not Sunak’s fault, but he is not helping himself with his campaign so far. If the long-anticipated narrowing of the polls has not happened by next weekend, some insiders predict a meltdown to match the chaos in Michael Foot’s Labour party in 1983. Even without the snafu in the centralised printing of campaign literature, most candidates’ leaflets are steering clear of pictures of the prime minister and frequent mentions of the word “Conservative”. 

Mutiny might mean individual candidates openly disassociating themselves from policies included in the manifesto when it appears or openly joining in the argument over who the next leader of the party should be before the voters deliver their verdict on Sunak on 4 July. 

This General Election will be a record-breaker one way or another. No British party has ever won five elections in a row. Nor has a party recovered as much in one term as Labour must for victory. 

If Sir Keir triumphs, we will all find out what he is like. Some are predicting that a stonking review would set Labour up for at least a decade in power. Perhaps. 

Disillusioned Tories may find a glimmer of hope from what happened in Canada. Things did not go exactly as Farage believes they will here. The insurgents did not prevail entirely in their own terms. After their defeat, the Progressive Conservatives and Reform eventually merged, largely on the former’s terms. Thirteen years later, the right was united and Stephen Harper, who had quit as a Reform leader, led the Conservative party of Canada back into power. 

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