Sir John Curtice: In some ways, Reform is as big a problem as Labour for Sunak now

Sir John Curtice
‘Beyond the DUP, the Tories have no friends in the House of Commons’ - Geoff Pugh
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Last year should have been one of personal milestones for Prof Sir John Curtice. In December, he turned 70. Eight months earlier, his wife, Lisa, hit the same age. For that, they and their daughter, plus her husband and two young children, celebrated by renting some rooms in a castle in Stirlingshire. When Curtice’s turn rolled around, though, he just decided to ignore it entirely.

“Ye-ess,” he says, waving the air impatiently, “work was just far too busy. But I am 70 and I’m still in employment. So thank God for the government that brought in age discrimination legislation…”

Officially, Sir John is professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, president of the British Polling Council and senior research fellow at both the National Centre for Social Research and UK in a Changing Europe.

Unofficially, he is simply the nation’s foremost political polling guru; a boffin of such unerring accuracy and phlegmatic delivery that his input to the BBC’s election nights – interpreting exit polls, explaining voting trends, sitting on high like the umpire of democracy – have given him a cult following. “Is Sir John Curtice On TV?” asks a Twitter/X account with 12,000 followers. Invariably, he is.

“I don’t pay attention to that stuff or follow parody accounts. But people come up to me in the street, and they’re usually very nice, asking for a selfie. I suppose the people who think I’m a load of bloody nonsense don’t bother.”

‘The Tories are having an existential crisis’

Sir John has studied politics for over 45 years, but the last dozen have been the wildest. “Ever since the SNP got the overall majority in 2011 and Cameron decided to hold the independence referendum, British politics has faced some pretty remarkable challenges,” he says.

“First there was the Scotland question, then the 2015 election, paving the way for the EU referendum; Theresa May and parliament getting stuck on Brexit while the Conservatives and Labour look in deep, deep trouble; then along comes Boris with a majority, then some quiet but oh – a pandemic. Then straight into partygate and Tory leadership elections; then Elizabeth II dies, Liz Truss arrives and is a complete disaster… And so now we have this situation where the opposition party, even though everyone thought it faced this insurmountable hurdle, are now odds-on favourites to win the general election.”

‘Sunak loves a spreadsheet, he’s a details person’
‘Sunak loves a spreadsheet, he’s a details person’ - Getty

Given it is now election year, he’s about to get even busier. He arrives at a hotel just off Whitehall looking like a man in a hurry: tweed flat cap, grey suit, sensible raincoat, practical black trainer-shoe hybrids.

Affable and eccentric, with wild tufts of white candyfloss hair, he looks like Doc Brown in Back to the Future or a phenomenally cerebral Roman senator.

“So this is one of those personality things, is it?” he says. “Why do you want to talk to me?” Well, I say, it’s the election soon, and you’re Professor Sir John Curtice. A sigh. “I see. All right.”

Sir John is down in London for a few days for meetings, interviews and events. It’s a trip he makes from his home in Glasgow so often he’s worked out how to get precisely six hours of sleep on the Caledonian sleeper. “But my ideal exciting day is one where I get up in the morning at home, I’m in front of my laptop at 9am, I do not get disturbed by journalists, and at the end of the day I have something to show for it.”

I suspect he secretly enjoys being so in demand – not that anyone sees the next election as on a knife-edge. Sir John certainly doesn’t as last week’s by-election results confirmed. Speaking briefly on the phone, on Friday afternoon, after not having slept for over 30 hours, things had gone more or less as expected.

“I didn’t necessarily expect the Conservatives to do quite as badly in Wellingborough, but certainly Reform doing better and the Conservatives coming a cropper was the central expectation.” It is clear that Reform is now a major thorn in the Tories’ side.

“Richard Tice is determined to stand everywhere, they feel the Conservatives have failed to deliver on Brexit, failed to deliver on immigration and failed to deliver on tax, so basically the Conservatives are being attacked on their Right by people who think they’ve not upheld the true faith. And that’s always difficult,” Sir John says.

“The problem they’ve got is that we’re already looking at serious fracturing of the Leave coalition that got the Conservatives into power in 2019. Virtually everybody who votes for Reform is a Brexiteer, so there’s a risk of making the fracturing of that crucial Leave coalition even worse.”

Is Reform almost a bigger problem than Labour for Sunak now? “Not really, because if you lose a vote to Labour they’re in the position to turn that into seats, whereas Reform aren’t. But in terms of the flow of the vote, yes. Basically, the by-elections mirror the message of the opinion polls: that roughly speaking, for every one person switching from Conservative to Labour, there’s another one switching to Reform.”

As it stands, then, Labour’s lead is strong and stable at around 20 points. “Aside from Reform UK showing a bit of life, nothing of great note has happened in 16 months. The Conservatives were recovering a bit, but they then made the fatal mistake of not falling in behind the Privileges Committee’s report on Boris Johnson, and such progresses they made disappeared,” Sir John says.

“It looks increasingly like the Conservative Party doesn’t understand the pickle it’s in, the source of its difficulties, or certainly hasn’t identified an effective way out. Time’s running out and history’s also against it.” It is a party “having an existential crisis”, he adds, and “it may be the case that in deciding to focus on immigration, the Tories just handed votes to Reform. All they’ve done is a) Advertise their failure and b) Advertise their division.”

In a way, he thinks, Labour have it easy. “Basically, the Conservative Party said to itself: ‘We’re in deep trouble, we’ve increased the role of the state, we’ve increased taxation substantially and we haven’t delivered on immigration – that’s why we’re down in the polls.’ This is almost certainly a non sequitur. The reason they’re down in the polls is simple. One, the state of the economy; two, the state of the health service; and three, Boris Johnson. So on the economy, Labour can just pin the tail on the donkey and say: ‘It’s the Tories wot did it!’”

But Sir Keir Starmer shouldn’t jump for joy just yet. “Keir Starmer hasn’t won the hearts and minds of the country. He has convinced people [Labour] are reasonably moderate and that they can conceive of him as prime minister – that he won’t upset the applecart. But there’s no enthusiasm and that’s potentially a problem.”

‘Starmer’s skillset is that he’s a brilliant prosecution lawyer’
‘Starmer’s skillset is that he’s a brilliant prosecution lawyer’ - AFP

Not least because the issues that did for the Tories will linger, and require cash. “As one economist said to me recently, ‘What’s the point of a socially democratic government when there isn’t any money to spend?’ It becomes very difficult to satisfy your constituency. You can see the Tories are in trouble now, but you can also see how after 18 months of a Labour government, assuming the Tories don’t engage in fratricidal warfare, the Labour Party could find itself in a pretty difficult position as well.”

A one-term government, then? Sir John inhales sharply, then gives a firm nod. “Potentially, yes. If lots of Tories manage to avoid imploding…” So despite appearances, it’s actually a more interesting election than it seems? “Yes, it is.”

‘Intellectuals tend not to be very good at politics’

An only child, Sir John was born and raised in St Austell, Cornwall. His father was a joiner; his mother a part-time market researcher. “Lower middle stroke skilled working class. My grandfather refused to pay for my mother to go to grammar school, and that’s something she long held against him. So she was very keen to promote my education.”

Both grandfathers were miners, but the maternal side was also politically active. Sir John’s mother became a councillor for the Liberals, while her brother was a Labour supporter.

“I certainly remember the occasional political argument around the kitchen table.” A bookish child, Sir John found it fascinating how people under the same roof could have very different views about the world. “Though my first political memory is the death of Hugh Gaitskell [in 1963, when he was 10], and the subsequent Labour leadership election. I just found it interesting – don’t ask me why.”

Sir John enjoys identifying “key moments” in narrative trends, and he cites two in his early life. “One was when I started doing A-levels and we were told that it’s not about learning things, it’s about arguing and debating. I went: ‘Oh, this is much more interesting.’ One of my traits is that I’m pretty willing to challenge conventional wisdom, which started at 16. And the second was getting to university and deciding the academic life looks quite good.”

He read politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) at Magdalen College, Oxford, before transferring to Nuffield College as a postgraduate. Sir Tony Blair was a contemporary, “but he wasn’t involved in politics.” More into pretending to be Mick Jagger? “Yes, indeed. John Hutton and Chris Huhne were also around, though in those days Huhne was definitely a member of the Labour Party.”

Sir John Curtice
‘People come up to me in the street, and they’re usually very nice, asking for a selfie’ - Geoff Pugh

Sir John “hung around” Oxford teaching for a few years, and ended up tutoring William Hague, “so that’s my principal achievement.” Lord Hague was an MP at 27 and a minister at 31, of course.

“Hague was just your classic intelligent layperson, born for PPE. He spent most of his time in the union. Didn’t do a lot of work, but obviously just knuckled down six weeks before finals and got a first. He was one of those people who could mug it up, write the essay quickly, and talk the talk… You’ve probably had plenty of those in your office, haven’t you?” Well, I think one of them became prime minister. Curtice giggles. “Indeed.”

Incidentally, Boris Johnson is one of the three “titans of post-war politics” that Sir John sets apart from all other politicians he’s witnessed. The others are Sir Tony and Margaret Thatcher. He never considered becoming a politician himself: “I’m too cussed, too individualistic.”

Besides, “to some degree I’m a jester, a licensed fool; under the guise of impartiality or academic dottiness, you’re given a licence to say what other people won’t say. I take the view that intellectuals tend not to be very good at politics. You need to be articulate, you need to be good at communication, you need to be able to construct a narrative and set out a vision; but you also need not to have self-doubt – and that’s a crucial feature of academic life.”

It is a strange, rare combination of skills in a person. The best he’s seen is Sir Tony Blair, “who could just command the attention of the British public and construct a narrative, and apart from eventually becoming undone, he was pretty good at government.

Johnson, Thatcher and Blair are, according tot Curtice, the ‘titans of post-war politics’
Johnson, Thatcher and Blair are, according tot Curtice, the ‘titans of post-war politics’ - Christopher Furlong/Getty Images | Jamie Hodgson/Getty Images | Medhi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s on that last point that puts him ahead of Boris, a consummate campaigner who ended up being lousy in government. Wrong skillset. He was a prime minister for good times, not a pandemic. And Thatcher was a good communicator, but again came undone and out of touch. Until the latter end of her premiership, though, she was probably the most skillful. These are the three titans.”

At Oxford, Sir John’s mentor was the political scientist David Butler, a psephologist who was a commentator on the BBC’s election night coverage from 1950 to 1979 and co-invented the swingometer. Under Butler, Sir John came to understand just how important quantitative analysis could be, especially in the burgeoning computer age. When most academics were still using slide rules, he gained computer skills; he soon succeeded Butler as the BBC’s go-to election night interpreter.

He has now worked on every general election since 1979, making the next one his 11th, and the 18th of his lifetime. So I wonder how he rates the current crop of leaders.

“One of the problems we have at the moment is that I don’t think either Sunak, or Starmer, or Davey, or frankly Yusuf, really have the skillset to be a political leader. Starmer and Sunak are professionally highly competent, but Sunak’s skillset is he loves a spreadsheet, he’s a details person, like Gordon Brown,” Sir John says.

“Starmer’s skillset is that he’s a brilliant prosecution lawyer. These are not unuseful skillsets in government, but they’re not the things that enable you to communicate with the wider public.”

And those are the best we have. Is this the weakest group of leaders he’s ever seen fight a general election? He thinks for a moment. “Yes, probably.”

‘The 1975 EU referendum didn’t settle the issue and it’s pretty clear 2016’s didn’t either’

Sir John won’t be telling me who wins his own vote, but he will admit he’s not always voted the same way. There are no MPs he would consider friends, and he has clear rules: to never take money from a political party or organisation close to parties; and he’ll tell nobody anything in private he wouldn’t be willing to say in public.

It helps that he doesn’t live in Westminster – or even England. Meaning you won’t find him ensconced in the Carlton Club of an evening. If he does stay in the capital, it’s often with his daughter, a senior civil servant, and her family in south London. “I spend most of my time reading computer tables, not running around SW1.”

His wife, Lisa, decided in recent years to become a full-time Anglican priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Sir John too is a regular churchgoer. “One of the reasons I’m still in employment is, shall we say, that she’s not at home waiting for me to take her to Amsterdam every weekend.” They relax by tending to their allotment.

“My great salvation. I try to get to it most weekends – winter veg, summer fruit. It’s two or three hours of physical exercise, which helps keep the weight down, and it means I’ve got something else to worry about for a bit. But it’s been a lousy winter.” Nature isn’t as predictable as the voting public.

He’s come to learn that he needs some sleep, but “you have to be able to do all night” every few months. His BBC election coverage tends to be fuelled by just coffee. He’ll be back this year, though with David Dimbleby retiring and Huw Edwards unwell, nobody knows who’ll be sitting beside him. “And I don’t either.”

He cites 1992 as his greatest failure, when polls suggested a hung parliament or narrow Labour majority. In the end, it was a fourth consecutive victory for the Tories. “The polling wrongfooted us quite badly.”

His greatest triumph, on the other hand, was surely 2017, when his remarkable exit poll revealed Theresa May could lose her parliamentary majority, then the real results matched it almost identically. He was heralded as “the man who won the election” and knighted the following year.

Sir John receiving his Knighthood in 2018
Sir John receiving his Knighthood in 2018 - Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Not that he let fame go to his head – his wife and daughter put paid to that. “They are aware of my cult status. Or supposed cult status. I think they are both sufficiently strong personalities with their own interests and careers that they wear it lightly, and treat me with the due level of disrespect that all daughters and wives should have for their fathers and husbands.”

We’re in for another unpredictable decade. He can say with certainty that the debate over the EU “isn’t over”, and given the age profile of the Leave vote, the issue will resurface in the long run, “because the 1975 referendum didn’t settle the issue, and it’s pretty clear 2016’s didn’t either”. The same is true of the situation north of the border.

But soon there is a general election that will require an almighty shift to generate surprise. “The Tories have to do more than deny Labour an overall majority, they’ve got to get to about 320 seats otherwise they are stuffed. Beyond the DUP, they have no friends in the House of Commons. So even if they get fewer seats, Labour will form a government. You’re talking about the Tories having to get back to at least even-stevens, probably a bit better.”

And at 70-years-old and after 45 years dancing on the polls, it might, just might, end up Sir John’s last. He clinks down his cappuccino. “Inevitably,” he says, “I may well ask myself after the next general election, ‘Well, maybe it’s time to wind down?’”

As ever, though, it’s a matter of reading the trends. “I’m not sending out any signals. I’m just aware that’s something you should constantly evaluate, then reevaluate.”

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