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Another Canada 93? Tory Sunak critics fear extinction-level election result | Conservatives

Another Canada 93? Tory Sunak critics fear extinction-level election result | Conservatives
Another Canada 93? Tory Sunak critics fear extinction-level election result | Conservatives

Overseas elections from more than 30 years ago are rarely hot topics of conversation in modern UK politics. But whisper “Canada 1993” into a Conservative MP’s ear and don’t be surprised if they break into a sudden cold sweat.

This is the model for the “extinction-level event” experienced by a previously dominant rightwing party – one that some Tory opponents of Rishi Sunak warn he risks emulating at the next general election.

The basic and, for Tory MPs, chilling facts are that in October 1993 the Progressive Conservative party, in power in Canada since 1984, slumped from 167 federal seats to just two, eventually leading to its dissolution and merger into the new Conservative party of Canada.

There are some curiously precise parallels: a complacent conservative incumbent that had recently ditched its leader (Kim Campbell replacing Brian Mulroney) was struggling with the economy and faced a new, insurgent rightwing party – called Reform.

Arguably the most pertinent common ground is the fact that Canada, like Westminster, uses first past the post (FPTP), a system that can greatly distort the way votes translate into numbers of MPs – in 1993 the Progressive Conservatives got 16% of the vote and ended up with less than 1% of the seats.

Could this happen here? Some on the right of the UK Conservatives, who want Sunak to more closely follow Reform UK’s harder-right populism on areas such as immigration, argue that without a change, of course it could.

Kim Campbell at the Progressive Conservative party leadership convention months before the 1993 Canadian election. Photograph: Tom Hanson/AP

Such warnings have grown since last week’s byelection losses in Wellingborough and Kingswood, previously Conservative seats won by Labour after a collapse in the Tory vote and Reform winning 13% and 10% respectively in each seat.

The scenario that more doom-laden Tories fear could tip a general election defeat into a calamity would be a further slip in the polls and Nigel Farage deciding to retake the helm of Reform before the election, boosting its support among disenchanted voters on the right.

It is certainly true that while a post-election tally of two feels unrealistic, the vagaries of FPTP means it would not take a massive shift in polling for the total number of Tory MPs to drop dramatically.

The votes-to-seats modeller on the Electoral Calculus website shows that at current polling levels – 27% for the Conservatives, 43% for Labour, 10% for the Liberal Democrats, 9% for Reform, 7% for the Greens – the Conservatives would be reduced to 179 MPs.

However, in a scenario where Labour’s vote share increased by one percentage point to 44%, the Tories’ fell to 20%, with the other six points moving to Reform (now on 14%) and the Lib Dems (13%), and the Greens still on 7%, could result in just 55 Conservative MPs.

Such FPTP distortions can be amplified further by particularly efficient tactical voting and the vagaries of where votes are distributed.

There are a number of significant differences from Canada in 1993, however, including the near disappearance of the Progressive Conservatives’ representation in Quebec amid the rise of the separatist Bloc Québécois. In contrast, the Conservatives start at an already lower base in Scotland and, to an extent, Wales.

Keir Starmer welcomes the new Labour MPs Gen Kitchen (red jacket) and Damien Egan (behind Starmer) to the Houses of Parliament on Monday. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

Overall, most pundits do not believe a Canada-style wipeout will happen. “Never say never about anything in politics,” said Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer and psephologist. “But the only people who mention it are those who have a vested interest in exaggerating the potential for a possible defeat.”

Lord Hayward thinks it is unlikely that the Tories will win fewer than 100 seats, arguing that the rise of Reform could hamper Lib Dem appeal for anti-Tory protest voters. “I could foresee circumstances where something like that could happen. Do I think it will happen? No,” he said.

Anand Menon, the director of the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe and a professor of European politics at King’s College London, co-authored a 2022 study that examined the parallels with 1993. He argued that the situations were sufficiently different.

“On one level, anything’s possible,” he said. “My hunch is that the polls will narrow as we get to the election. With the Canadian case, you had a far stronger splintering of the right than we seem to have now, even with Reform’s performance last week.

“The other thing you’ve got to factor in, which builds into this uncertainty, is there is eye-watering levels of volatility amongst the British voting public at the moment, compared to any historical period.

“Some basic facts seem to me self-evident, which is that the Tories are in a really bad position and are heading towards a bad electoral defeat. But whether it’s what they call an extinction-level event, I doubt, to be honest.”

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