Daniel Béland and Anand Menon look back at the electoral wipeout of Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party in 1993 and compare it to the situation facing the UK Conservative Party today, asking to what extent a similarly extreme defeat at the next general election could be on the cards.
Could it happen here? Just before Prime Minister Liz Truss resigned on October 20 following her so-called ‘mini-budget,’ many commentators were moved to compare her plight with that of another right-wing party leader who, under a similar electoral system, led her party to electoral destruction.
That other Prime Minister was, of course, Kim Campbell, leader of Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party (PC). Campbell replaced the increasingly unpopular Brian Mulroney in June 1993. Yet, in federal elections held in October of that year, her party – in power since 1984 – lost 167 seats, retaining only two (despite winning 16 per cent of the votes). The erstwhile Party of Government emerged as the fifth largest in the House of Commons. Adding insult to injury, Campbell lost her seat.
To simplify somewhat, there were three main reasons for this precipitous decline. First regionalism, or rather the failure of regional policy. The Meech Lake Accord, a constitutional agreement brokered by Prime Minister Mulroney in 1987, was popular in Quebec. However, the failure of all provinces to ratify it lead to the resurgence of pro-independence sentiments in the form of the federal Bloc Québécois. While the Progressive Conservatives had hoovered up 58 of the 75 Quebec seats in 1984, the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord and the creation of the Bloc Québécois conspired to wound it fatally. It held on to only one seat in the province in 1993.
The failed constitutional reform also posed another problem. The Reform Party was created in 1987 (the year of the Lake Meech Accord) in response to what some perceived as the disproportionate influence enjoyed by Quebec and a lack of voice for the West in the federal parliament. While created to defend the interests of westerners, however, the Reform Party also posed an ideological challenge for the Progressive Conservatives. It positioned itself to the party’s right, and in the process split the right-wing vote. This, plus the electoral domination of the Bloc Québécois in Quebec, laid the groundwork for the electoral destruction of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993.
Third, the Canadian economy, and the public finances, were still recovering from a recession, and unemployment remained high. The introduction of the Goods and Services Tax in 1991 (to aid the fight against high federal deficits) also proved immensely unpopular and contributed to the debacle of 1993.
Regional opposition, a splintering of the right and unpopular fiscal policies, then, did for the Progressive Conservatives. The question is whether a similar fate may yet await the Conservative Party in the UK.
Lets start first with the encouraging news for Rishi Sunak. The dangers of a territorial backlash are less serious for the Conservatives than they were for their Canadian counterparts in 1993 – if only because they’re starting from a far lower base. The Tories hold only six seats in Scotland (out of 59), while in Wales that figure is 14 out of 40. In principle, they could afford to lose all their Scottish and Welsh seats and still maintain their majority in parliament. Certainly, the party’s majority is likely to be won or lost in England.
It is a renewed threat from the right in England – emenating from, in echoes of Canada 30 years ago, the Reform Party – that now poses the biggest danger for the Conservative Party, and carries with it the possibility of the party’s ratings returning to something close to extinction level. When it comes to the political right, one of the successes of Boris Johnson was to unite the centre and populist right in the election of 2019. The Conservatives’ embrace of Brexit helped reunite the Leave vote around a leader who promised to ‘get Brexit done.’
That success of Johnson in 2019 means a Farage comeback – based perhaps on dissatisfaction with high levels of immigration (this week saw the highest figure for net migration since records began) and some grumbling about net zero – would cause a much bigger headache for the Conservative Party than Labour. This pressure from the right would also complicate the task of Tory strategists anxious to capitalise on one of Sunak’s strengths: the perception he can counter the threat they face in many southern ‘Blue Wall’ seats from Liberal Democrats. The latter hope to benefit from dissatisfaction among liberal Tories concerned about the rightward drift of the party on cultural issues, and Government mismanagement of the economy.
And this latter point that will ultimately prove crucial. The cost-of-living crisis is the single most important issue on the political agenda. Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini budget received the worst reception of any financial statement since the Conservatives took power in 2010 – with 53% of respondents saying the measures announced were unfair. One poll subsequent to the financial statement put the Labour Party 21 points ahead of the Conservatives – their largest recorded lead. And the autumn statement has hardly assuaged concerns, with polling showing voters to be more concerned about the economic situation after than before it. The Conservative brand appears to have suffered long-term damage.
And herein lies an important similarity with the Canadian case. The Progressive Conservatives appointed Campbell precisely because they hoped her strong personal ratings might help stave off electoral defeat. It was a gamble that failed. Similarly, Rishi Sunak enjoyed a small poll bounce upon entering 10 Downing Street and remains significantly more popular than his party. Yet his party, beset by structural problems, still lags far behind Labour in the polls. Sunak, bracing for defeat rather than disaster, can perhaps take cold crumb of comfort from the fact that the Conservative Party’s plight seems somewhat less serious than that which destroyed the Progressive Conservatives in 1993.
By Professor Daniel Béland, Director, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and James McGill Professor of Political Science, McGill University; and Professor Anand Menon, Director, UK in a Changing Europe.