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Truss is good news for Labour’s electoral prospects

Truss is good news for Labour’s electoral prospects


The fact that Liz Truss was not the most popular candidate among Tory MPs bodes ill for the Tories. Andreas Murr and Stephen Fisher write that no party has won a general election with a leader who lost the contest to win the support of his own MPs. They say the party’s leadership model predicts the Conservatives will lose the next general election.

The UK has a new Prime Minister. Liz Truss comfortably won the vote of Conservative party members. She replaces Boris Johnson who had become very unpopular with the public, presiding over a 15 point drop in the rating of party opinion polls. Can Liz Truss save the Tories now and lead them to victory in the next election?

An answer to this question comes from Andreas Murrs Party leadership model (see also here and here). Based on the idea that party leaders are important for elections, the model looks to MPs to provide an indication of the quality of their party leader. MPs have a strong incentive to choose an election winner when given the opportunity to vote for their party leader. They also know the candidates well, having worked with them at Westminster for years. If a candidate is comfortably the most popular among party MPs, chances are that candidate has strong potential for electoral victory.

The model produces predictions only when the two main party leaders were chosen through a process that involved their own MPs voting on the leadership candidates. That means fourteen out of fifteen elections since 1966. (The model is silent for 2005 because Michael Howard became unopposed leader when the party ousted Iain Duncan Smith.) In total, eleven of these fourteen elections were won by the party with the leader with the largest margin of victory among MPs.

For example, Margaret Thatcher beat William Whitelaw by a margin of 24.3 percentage points, but Jim Callaghan beat Michael Foot by just 12.4 points. Since Thatchers’ margin of victory among his own MPs was greater than that of Callaghans, the model predicted a Tory victory for any general election with these two leaders. Despite polls at the time suggesting the public liked Callaghan more, Thatcher won in 1979.

What does the model predict will be the outcome of a general election with Keir Starmer and Liz Truss as leaders?

Starmers lead among MP nominations in the 2020 Union Leadership Competition was 25.9%. In the last round of Tory MPs in July, Rishi Sunak won by a 6.7% margin over Liz Truss. Thus, the party leadership model predicts that Starmer would win against Sunak or Truss. He also predicted that Starmer would win 51.5% of the seats and Truss 41.4%.

Of course, the prediction of the party’s leadership model comes with uncertainties. Many scenarios, even a Conservative victory, are possible, although less likely. Likewise, assuming the next election will be on January 24, 2025, the latest possible date on which the prediction comes with a delay of more than two years. Obviously, a lot can change between now and the next general election, including its actual date. Nevertheless, the prediction depends only on the results of the party leadership elections. If the party leaders remain the same, the prediction remains the same.

The fact that Liz Truss was not the most popular candidate among Tory MPs bodes particularly badly for the Tories. David Cameron came second in the first round of the Conservative leadership election in 2005, but only by six votes. He won the second and final round of MPs voting by a margin of 16.7%. Liz Truss won no rounds among Tory MPs. She came third behind Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordant in the first four rounds, and only beat Penny Mordant by eight votes in the final round.

No party has won a general election with a leader who lost the contest for the support of his own MPs. This is partly because it has not been possible for a long time to become leader while losing the vote of the deputies. It has only been since 1983 that Labor has given a say in leadership to those outside the parliamentary party. The Conservatives first gave party members a vote on leaders in 2001.

The Conservatives have only once before had a leader chosen by party members against the wishes of Conservative MPs. It was Iain Duncan Smith, who didn’t survive long enough to fight a general election.

Labor MPs favored David over Ed Miliband in 2010, and three other candidates over Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. Ed Miliband lost a general election. Corbyn lost two, the second of which was Labor’s worst result since 1935.

Duncan Smith, Miliband and Corbyn were all opposition leaders. Liz Truss is the first prime minister appointed against the expressed will of MPs on the government side. In addition to casting doubt on her electoral prospects, it raises interesting immediate questions about how she will be able to legislate.


Andreas Murr is Associate Professor of Quantitative Political Science at the University of Warwick.

Stephen Fisher is professor of political sociology at the University of Oxford.

Photo byRwandavia Wikimedia Commons, under a CC-BY-SA-4.0 Licence

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