Tories told to focus on ‘narrow path’ to election victory

Rishi Sunak’s chief strategy guru has warned the cabinet that the Conservatives have only a “narrow path” to victory at the next election and that ill-discipline could lead the party to disaster at the polls.

Isaac Levido, the Australian strategist who oversaw Boris Johnson’s general election victory in 2019, has told ministers at a cabinet “awayday” that solid adherence to a core Tory message is vital.

With the Conservatives typically trailing Labour by 20 percentage points in opinion polls, Sunak has told colleagues privately that party discipline is key: “We can win, but it depends whether our MPs actually want to win.”

Sunak on Thursday convened the cabinet at Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat in Buckinghamshire, to hear Levido warn that 2023 was going to be a tough year, but that the party had to hold its nerve.

One person briefed by Levido in recent days said: “Isaac has told us we have to buckle in for 2023 and that people shouldn’t expect the polls to budge for quite a long time. But it’s vital we don’t get distracted.”

Sunak told ministers to focus relentlessly on his “five promises”: halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing public debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and “stopping small boats” carrying migrants across the English Channel.

The prime minister’s problem, privately acknowledged by his allies, is that Tory MPs may not stick to Levido’s script and the first few weeks of 2023 have not been auspicious.

Polls show Sunak’s approval ratings gradually falling as he grapples with issues such as the scandal involving the tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi, the Tory chair.

Meanwhile rightwing Conservative MPs, including former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, are clamouring for tax cuts in the March Budget, which Sunak believes will cut across his plan to reduce inflation.

Another perilous moment for Sunak will be May’s local elections, as Johnson continues to be seen as a saviour by some Conservative MPs, in spite of questions over his personal conduct in office.

Under the Levido plan, Sunak will focus on his five promises during 2023, most of which should be achievable because of the current trajectory of the economy. Stopping small boats could prove to be the most difficult to attain.

Then, according to Tory MPs briefed by chancellor Jeremy Hunt, the spring Budget of 2024 will be the pivotal moment in this parliament, when growth returns and tax cuts become possible.

The template for the strategy is John Major’s unlikely Tory election victory in 1992, when he persuaded voters that the UK was “on the right track”, even though the party appeared exhausted after 13 years in power.

Levido’s plan is to have a clearly targeted campaign for an election expected in the autumn of 2024. One Tory MP said: “We’ve been told there’s an 80:20 election strategy so it’s clear exactly which seats we are contesting.”

Under this strategy, the party will focus its efforts on defending 80 Conservative seats which are deemed most vulnerable, while also targeting 20 opposition constituencies which might be winnable in a benign political environment.

“I would be astonished if Labour were 20 points ahead going into the election,” said one former Tory cabinet minister. “Things will narrow as the election nears. In the political sphere the election is round the corner but in the real world it’s still a while away.”

Another Conservative MP said: “Isaac has pushed this idea that there is a very narrow path to victory for the party but it is possible to scrape a win. He says the strategy could work but it requires no screw ups on the part of the party.”

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