Labour on course for victory but majority is not guaranteed, says Lord Finkelstein
The outcome of the forthcoming general election remains uncertain, with the Conservatives ‘highly unlikely’ to stay in power and a massive defeat possible, yet no guarantee that Labour will win a majority, a leading political commentator told business leaders at a HURST event.
Lord Daniel Finkelstein said it is not impossible for the Tories to win a majority, but that without one they would be unable to govern, as no other party would link with them to form a coalition.
He said Labour requires a big swing to secure a majority, and that its prospects depend a lot on how the economy is performing when the election is called.
Speaking at a lunch event at Emirates Old Trafford, home of Lancashire Cricket Club, held as part of our Executive Insight programme, Lord Finkelstein said the Tories are lagging behind Labour on three major metrics and that timing will be key to their chances of electoral success.
Having been in power for 13 years, the Tories have lost support and people are looking for an alternative, he said.
“This effect is so important. It’s hitting the Conservatives and the SNP. I call it the Pendulum Effect. Labour has a change feeling,” he said.
“The Conservatives are also behind on the economy, and this issue in general determines what happens in elections.
“The party that is running with the economy most of the time wins the election.
“You can win if the economy is going against you, but you have to find another campaign theme to concentrate on. The Tories have toyed with the idea of running with immigrants and boats, and removing Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights, but are quite split on it.”
The third key metric is leadership, he explained.
“No-one has ever won an election if they are behind on the economy and leadership, which is what the Tories are.
“People are not wild about Keir Starmer. He had quite a successful party conference but was not at the top of the news agenda. He has vulnerabilities as a candidate.”
Lord Finkelstein said holding the election for May 2024 might make sense for the Conservatives, if the economy is on track, inflation is coming down and there is the possibility of a recession in the summer.
However, the economy may not improve until next autumn and, in any event, Rishi Sunak would wish to stay on as prime minister for as long as possible, he said.
Lord Finkelstein is a renowned columnist for The Times, and served as an adviser to former PM John Major and former Conservative leader William Hague.
He said John Major made a big mistake in 1997 thinking that, if he pushed off the general election a little further, he might triumph – but Tony Blair’s New Labour won a landslide.
“It’s important to understand that lots of these elections are about timings. The Conservatives could do as badly as the polls suggest. A really massive defeat is possible, but I don’t think it’s certain,” said Lord Finkelstein.
“Labour is not offering anything that exciting and needs a big swing. They need to be 10 per cent ahead in the polls to win a majority, but a lead often halves during an election campaign.
“They are currently 16 per cent ahead, so their lead could end up at eight per cent.
“Keir Starmer’s conduct has been quite dull, and he does not inspire very much. It’s a good strategy, concentrating on the things the Tories have done wrong and blame them, that this country is broken.
“He is a person with a lot of integrity and would be quite competent as prime minister. He should stick to his strategy of reassurance and attacking the Tories.”
Lord Finkelstein said the Tories have three options for their campaign:
- That it’s time for a change
- That Britain is on track and don’t turn back
- Better the devil you know.
“Rishi has very daringly run on the first option – that it’s time for a change. I think it’s a very unusual, unorthodox choice. I can see the logic, but am not sure it will work,” he said.
If the economy is on track, he could run with the second option, but the third option is out of the question.
Overall, Lord Finkelstein is predicting a Labour win but said he was unsure about its chances of gaining a majority.
The Liberal Democrats could hold the balance of power, which would move Keir Starmer to the left, he said.
“The more successful the Liberal Democrats are, the more left wing the government will be,” he said.
When asked by a member of the audience who could lead the Conservatives after an election defeat, he said Rishi Sunak may continue in office if the party performs well despite losing, or it could look to James Cleverly or Suella Braverman.
“A lot depends on how bad the election result is,” he said.