Sunak’s Conservatives face years of oblivion. Changing leader will solve nothing | Martin Kettle

Incredible though it may seem, it is increasingly likely that Rishi Sunak’s Conservative leadership will be challenged in June. To many, the idea that choosing a fifth Tory prime minister in as many years might be the solution to internal party turmoil, or that ditching Sunak a few months before a general election would reanimate the electorate, will feel utterly delusional. To a significant group of Conservative MPs and activists, however, it is a primrose path that beckons irresistibly.

These critics never supported Sunak in the first place. They can’t forgive him for not having Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit appeal. They despise his caution about their obsessions. They treat his failure to dent Labour’s poll lead with contempt. They believe, probably rightly, that in the 2 May local elections Sunak may lead the Tories to a humiliating defeat. But they hope this will panic the party into yet another change of leader and a lurch to their land of lost content on the populist right.

These local elections would matter a lot in any circumstances. They are not midterms, from which a defeated governing party can always hope to recover. Instead these are nearly end-of-terms. And they tell a fateful story. The Tories are staring at the loss of more than half of their councillors in May, with possible defeats for prominent mayors, including Andy Street in the West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, and the rise of Richard Tice’s Reform party slicing into the 2019 Tory electorate.

Put that together with last weekend’s well-publicised 15,000-person general election survey by Survation, and you have a party on death row. Survation’s poll forecasts for Labour a vast 286-seat general election majority, with Keir Starmer leading 468 MPs into the next parliament and the Conservatives reduced to a mere 98, easily their worst result of the democratic era. A new YouGov poll puts the figure at 403 seats, with a Labour majority of 154. The combination of the dire polls and the likely local election losses is a Conservative leadership tinderbox, ready to ignite after the local election weekend.

Sunak knows this only too well. It is why, by his own rather modest standards as a stump politician, he is putting unusual effort into local campaigning. It is also why his threat to call a June general election rather than submit to a challenge from his MPs should be taken more seriously than it is. The rebels certainly take it seriously, because it would kill their desperate strategy. Their hope that they can persuade King Charles to block a request from Sunak for a dissolution, however, is for the birds.

Such is the party’s volatility that the leadership hopefuls know the game is already afoot. The likelihood is nevertheless that Sunak will cling on to the loyalty of the majority, as John Major did in similar circumstances in 1995. But that is not a certainty. In the end, his MPs and their press backers are an unbiddable crew. If 53 of his 348 MPs ask for a confidence vote, many others will cast restraint aside.

From the grandstand, this all appears like a collective suicide strategy. For many on the pitch, though, it is clearly different. Priti Patel and Suella Braverman are weighing early challenges after the local elections. Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch do not want to be left behind if others have momentum. Nor do James Cleverly or Grant Shapps. Liz Truss, the most discredited Tory of the modern era, is eyeing the scrum. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, though not MPs, will be drawn into the intrigue. Even Dominic Cummings is taking fresh interest.

What all of this misses, though, is something much larger. Neither the current, blundering Conservative party nor the super-successful ideological one about which the rebels fantasise is a viable and stable centre-right party of government. A change of leader does not change that. To recreate an electorally viable party is not the work of weeks, but of years. That’s especially the case when, as the Tory journalist Danny Finkelstein pointed out this week, young Tory voters are almost extinct.

Rather than pretend that ousting Sunak will solve or even do anything to mitigate the Tory party’s plight, the Conservatives need a dose of historical humility and to play a longer game. After a terrible Tory performance in the local elections of 1995, the historians Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon argued in this paper that, although party leaders insisted that the next general election was still winnable, the Conservatives were locked into a cycle that pointed to a devastating defeat. That analysis seems as fresh, relevant and, above all, as accurate today as it did then.

Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon’s article for the Guardian in 1995. Photograph: The Guardian

Ball and Seldon argued that nine conditions defined the likelihood of Conservative defeat. These were: a negative image of the leader, confusion over policy direction, internal disunity, organisational disarray, weakened party finances, a hostile media and intellectual climate, public dissatisfaction with the economy, a “time for a change” mood and a credible opposition party.

All were present in 1995, six of them in an acute form. Much the same is true today. Sunak’s ratings are poor. Policy confusion – think net zero or levelling up – is common. Party divisions are deep. The intellectual climate is increasingly negative. Economic satisfaction is very low. There is a mood for change. And Labour is a credible alternative government. As the Liberal Democrat polling specialist Mark Pack observed last week, this puts the Conservatives today in at least as difficult a situation as in 1945, 1964 and 1997 – all of them elections lost by the Tories.

The real question facing the Conservatives today is not whether they can extricate themselves from this predicament and win an election while still in government. All the evidence says they cannot. The real question is whether the Conservatives can use the now almost inevitable period out of government to learn and recover to win an election from opposition. They have done this in the past, but the process has sometimes been divisive and difficult, as it was after 1997. There is no guarantee here either.

Ten years after their 1995 Guardian article, Ball and Seldon published a book, Recovering Power, about precisely this aspect of Tory history. It argued that in opposition the Tories too often lost sight of the need for adaptability to new ideas and a credible alternative platform, underpinned by hunger for office. But it stressed that any opposition recovery also depended on the failures, shortcomings and economic record of the government in power.

It is hard not to agree. The Conservative party has lost its way in government. Yet it shows few signs of grasping the scale of the tasks that would await it in opposition either. The truth is that the future of the Tory party does not rest in the personalities of those who are squabbling for Sunak’s job. It lies in the hands of Keir Starmer’s Labour party and its future record in government.