Enough Tory gerrymandering — it’s checkmate for Sunak

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How bad are things for the Conservatives? Well, let’s start by noting that even Tory MPs aren’t sure about voting for the party.

Rishi Sunak has declined to endorse his party’s candidate in this month’s Wellingborough by-election (she happens to be the partner of the outgoing MP, who was suspended over claims of bullying and sexual misconduct, which he denies). Meanwhile, Sir Simon Clarke, knighted for lasting nearly a year as a cabinet minister, has confessed no confidence in Sunak and warned of a looming election “massacre”.

So we can understand the party’s efforts to tip the scales. First came the rule that voters in England must present ID at polling stations. It was a noble stand against non-existent fraud from a party that likes to omit actual fraud when quoting crime statistics. It was also a transparent effort to favour Tory voters: an older person’s bus pass suffices, a young person’s railcard does not. Truly, the most rigged change to a franchise since the Russian state took over local branches of McDonald’s.

Now the Tories have another trick. As of last month, all British citizens living abroad will be able to vote in Westminster elections. Previously, a 15-year cut-off applied. Conservative HQ is reportedly searching for “proxy voters” to help make these migrants count. What does it say about the Tories’ record in power that their target demographic is people who haven’t lived in the country at any point in the relevant period? “Have you tried catching a train in the last decade? No? Excellent!”

Awkwardly, and like most other Tory policies, including the attempt to weaponise migration and the shortlived suggestion of tax cuts, this one is as well-plotted as a Nadine Dorries novel. The voting changes assume that people who have lived abroad for years would be older and lean Conservative (the 70-plus age bracket is the only one in which the party polls above Labour, says YouGov).  

Except Britons abroad have reasons not to vote Tory — not least Brexit and new migration rules. University of Sussex researchers have concluded that the idea of expats as rich Tories in the Med is “a stereotype that belongs to the 1980s”; most who were polled in 2019 would have voted for Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

I’m sceptical of that research, which surveyed members of a Facebook group. But certainly the expat vote won’t save the Tories. The number of eligible overseas voters has risen from around 1mn to around 3.3mn, say official estimates. Fewer than one in four of those eligible registered for the last election. Interest will be even lower among those who left the UK longer ago. The country with most Britons abroad is Australia: good luck getting a postal ballot there and back in 25 days.

Still, I’m excited to see what other franchise changes the Conservatives think up. The population of Rwanda is receiving quite a lot of UK government cash: might they be persuaded to vote Tory?

One day the Tories will realise that gerrymandering won’t get them out of their hole; it’s part of the reason they’re in a hole in the first place. We are tired of the government tilting public funding, public appointments and knighthoods to its own supporters.

Even the Post Office’s IT system couldn’t turn the next election into a Tory win. It will be the democratic equivalent of a court case where the lawyer strongly advises her client to plead guilty. If the government had any less puff, it would fall foul of its own ban on disposable vapes.

I recently joked it was unfair of Tory MPs to try to oust Sunak before he has a chance to fulfil his pledge to deliver 100 new chess sets. I was corrected: the pledge is only for 100 new chess boards. It’s up to you to pick up the pieces — a lesson the Tories will surely be learning this time next year.


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