Sunak tour map suggests defensive Tory election strategy

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Rishi Sunak took Westminster by surprise last week when he called the general election for July 4, but an analysis of his travel in the past few months suggests that in practice he has been on the stump for some time.

The UK prime minister has visited some 66 constituencies since January, according to a Financial Times analysis. His trips focused on seats won by the Conservatives at the last election in 2019, with an average majority of just under 10,000 votes.

The trend suggests a defensive strategy that anticipates potential Tory losses running into triple figures on election day, although some opinion polls suggest the governing party could suffer a much heavier drubbing.

Sunak’s allies say that the 44-year-old premier’s campaign schedule — some of it assisted by helicopter or private plane — is evidence that he has more stamina than Sir Keir Starmer, his 61-year-old Labour rival.

But Labour campaign headquarters has been keeping track of Sunak’s many visits; the data was checked by the FT to build up a picture of the kind of places where the prime minister expects the election to be decided. The Conservative party was contacted for comment.

Boundary changes in some constituencies make direct comparisons more difficult. Of the 66 constituencies in Britain visited by Sunak since the start of the year, 56 were won by the Conservatives in 2019 when measured using “notional” results on the new boundaries.

Labour won just eight, four of which were in London, and two went to the Liberal Democrats: Oxford West and Abingdon, and Caithness, Sutherland and Ross.

Sunak has concentrated his visits in areas that his party won narrowly in 2019. When measured using the new constituency boundaries, the average majority in seats visited by Sunak was 18.6 per cent, or 9,400 votes.

Of the 372 seats the Conservatives are defending this year, about 113 have a majority below 9,400, suggesting Sunak’s campaign is focused on damage limitation rather than winning new turf.

Isaac Levido, the party’s campaign chief, had devised an “80/20” strategy in which the Conservatives would focus on defending 80 key marginals and targeting 20 potential gains.

One Tory insider said the 80/20 approach had “always been dynamic and under review”, adding: “We also provide a wider ranger of support to other seats in different ways, and will continue to do that going forward.”

With the Conservatives trailing Labour in the national polls by over 20 percentage points, many of the marginal seats visited by Sunak over the first five months of 2024 are unlikely to be held on July 4.

In YouGov’s most recent MRP poll released in April, the Tories were projected to lose 48 of the 56 Conservative seats that Sunak visited, many by double-digit margins.

In recent by-elections in seats such as Wellingborough and Tamworth in the Midlands and Blackpool South in the north of England, there have been swings of over 20 percentage points against the Conservatives, indicating that even formerly safe Tory seats can now be considered marginals.

With campaigning now under way in earnest, the prime minister may switch his focus to seats that his party has a better chance of holding.

In the days immediately after he called the election, Sunak travelled to the constituencies of Cannock Chase and Erewash in the Midlands, where the Conservatives are defending 22 percentage point and 43 percentage point majorities, respectively.

The stated goal to gain 20 opposition-held seats may also be de-prioritised as electoral reality sets in. Up until this point, most of Sunak’s eight visits to Labour-held constituencies have been incidental rather than tactical.

For example, on March 5 he went to Vauxhall and Camberwell Green, a safe Labour seat in central London, to meet members of the English national team at the Oval cricket ground.

Tory officials say Sunak has hit the campaign trail running: the “Sleepy Keir” jibe aimed at Labour’s leader is a direct reference to presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump goading of 81-year-old US president “Sleepy Joe” Biden ahead of November’s election.

Labour said that was nonsense: “Keir and the Labour party are working round the clock, enjoying taking our message of change to the country.”

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