Sir John Curtice: Can Rishi Sunak revive his Party’s fortunes? 

Professor Sir John Curtice was recently back at Luther Pendragon’s offices for a #LutherNetwork breakfast roundtable with clients and contacts. He took us through the latest polling on a range of topics from Sunak vs Starmer to public sector strikes, from Brexit to the prospects for Scottish independence. Consultant Callum Nimmo writes on the key takeaways from Sir John’s presentation.

 Since we last welcomed Sir John to Luther’s offices in 2017, it’s been quite a ride in UK politics. Three Prime Ministers – and a global pandemic – later, the Conservative and Labour Parties have traded places in the polls. Sir John’s presentation, and subsequent discussion, revolved around one crucial question: Can Rishi Sunak revive his Party’s fortunes?

The pivotal point:

With the Conservatives having won a resounding general election victory in 2019, Sir John asked, “how did we get here?” He identified Autumn 2021 as the key moment when the poll of polls flipped to a Labour lead, from which the Conservatives have not recovered. It was at this time when the succession of events which eventually led to Boris Johnson’s defenestration started to take hold. Beginning with the allegations over Owen Paterson MP’s conduct, and then into the first Partygate revelations, the trajectory of downward support for the Government was firmly set in motion. Meanwhile, perceptions of the Government’s economic competence began to decline as the cost-of-living crisis and the apparent economic consequences of Brexit set in. This is the situation Rishi Sunak inherited merely a year later when he became Prime Minister in Autumn 2022.

Starmer vs Sunak:

Sunak’s popularity started out at a relatively high base, largely owing to his prominent role as Chancellor throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. A net approval rating of -19% for Sunak in November 2022 gave the Conservatives a hint of optimism, bearing in mind the Party as a whole had a net approval of -48% following Liz Truss’ brief premiership. However, Sir John showed that Sunak’s net approval had slid to -34% by February 2023.

While Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s approval remains notably better than Sunak’s, it’s nothing to write home about. In January 2023, Starmer was hovering at the -3% mark. Sir John starkly contrasted this with Tony Blair’s net approval of 22% in March 1997. In addition, only 35% of the public are saying now that Labour is ready for government, compared to 43% who say it is not. The comparisons with when the Labour Party last rose to power only seem to go so far.


With near-weekly strikes in the public sector, Sir John took us through what the public thinks. This revealed a highly nuanced position depending on who is striking: a net positive support of 34% for striking nurses compared with -12% for rail workers. Perhaps it’s no great surprise either that supporting strikes largely falls along traditional Party lines. Those who voted Conservative in 2019 oppose strikes among ambulance workers, fire fighters, teachers, postal workers, civil servants, and rail workers – only nurses receive an equal amount of support and opposition. In contrast, Labour voters overwhelmingly support all strike action – with net support of 79% for nurses and 77% for ambulance workers. Even rail workers enjoy the net support of 52% of Labour voters – a marked distinction to a net 62% opposition among Conservative voters.

Public services:

Sir John spoke of a “troubled NHS,” as panel data revealed long-standing dissatisfaction with the current state of health and care in the UK. Giving the Chancellor much food for thought ahead of the Spring Budget, the polling suggests that the public wants better public services and are willing to pay for it. However, with an already high tax burden and record public sector spending, this may prove to be a paradox which moves beyond the simple ’tax and spend’ argument, and requires proverbial rabbits to come out of budgetary hats.


By coincidence, we gathered with Sir John just as the Prime Minister unveiled the ‘Windsor Framework’. Sir John described how the divides which opened after the 2016 EU referendum continue to shape British politics. He highlighted that 60% of Labour voters, as opposed to 14% of Tory voters, label themselves as “re-joiners”, while the exodus of leave voters from Labour has softened. A clear majority of Brits also now think that Britain was wrong to leave the European Union in hindsight, corroborated by 49% of all voters now supporting re-entry to the Single Market.

For the key battleground seats of the ‘Red Wall’, the picture is more mixed. Labour is leading in these largely Brexit-backing areas, but not by a larger margin than it is across the rest of the country. This, therefore, speaks more to the fragile leave-voter coalition the Conservatives won in 2019, rather than to any particular Labour advance among its traditional heartlands.

Scottish independence:

As he turned to Scotland, Sir John described the current independence debate as “another part of the Brexit story”. He showed us that 65% of Scottish voters who support re-joining the EU also support an independent Scotland, compared with 22% of those who would stay out. At the time of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, the EU was not a significant issue, but the decision to leave has galvanised Remainers towards the SNP. Support among Scottish voters for independence has not reached a stable 50% in the polls, but the continued dominance of the issue suggests the trade-off these voters are making is between continued membership of the United Kingdom, or leaving to join a different union: the EU.

Sir John described how the vacuum left by Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation symbolises opportunity for Labour. The Party’s position in Scotland has been improving since 2019, mostly by gaining former Conservative voters, meanwhile the SNP’s support has fallen by 3%. Just a 5% swing from the SNP to Labour would result in 16 Scottish Labour MPs. If Labour really is to be ‘home and dry’, then persuading SNP voters back must form a crucial part of Starmer’s strategy.

So, with this all being said, can Rishi Sunak revive his Party’s fortunes? Currently, it appears a steep mountain for the PM to climb. However, Sir John reflected on Harold Macmillan’s adage: Events, dear boy, events. With an election most likely not until May 2024, it is  clear that Sir Keir Starmer cannot afford to be complacent, nor can we rule out some kind of turnaround by the Conservative Party. As things currently stand, though, that seems a distinctly tall order.

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