The Guardian view on the Conservatives: countdown to oblivion | Editorial

“So begins the countdown to oblivion,” the Labour MP and diarist Chris Mullin wrote on New Year’s Day 2010, as he contemplated the coming general election, which Labour duly lost. Today, by contrast, Britain is still two years away from its next election. Such is the fatalism among the current crop of Conservative MPs, however, that there is already an end of era mood and feel in the ruling party.Take the case of Chloe Smith, who holds Norwich North by a majority of 4,738. Ms Smith is only 40, and was in the cabinet until last month. Her decision to step down from politics this week is a move that others will also follow. Her colleague Will Wragg (34, Hazel Grove, majority 4,423) is already doing so. Matt Hancock may be next out of here. Lobbying firms report an increase in discreet job inquiries from inside Westminster, while Conservative headquarters has asked its MPs to clarify their plans. This latest countdown to oblivion has started early.There are objective reasons for Tory pessimism. Partygate and the tax-cutting debacle have left lasting damage. The cost of living crisis is deeper than ever. Household incomes are set to decline for two years. The share of the electorate who think the Conservatives are managing the economy badly is currently 81%. Rishi Sunak has better ratings than Boris Johnson or Liz Truss but they are still negative. The Tory party’s own standings are much worse. Labour’s poll lead is still about 20 points.Mr Sunak is also struggling to master the uncontrollable Tory ship at Westminster. Dubious cabinet appointments – Dominic Raab is the latest in the spotlight recently vacated by Gavin Williamson – have damaged his reputation. His inability to control the party any better than his predecessors is spotlit by the decisions of both Mr Johnson and Ms Truss this week to join a backbench revolt against the ban on new onshore windfarms. Mr Sunak has already had to postpone a vote to force local councils to meet housebuilding targets to which more than 50 of his MPs objected. Mr Sunak may have a nominal majority of 69, but he cannot deliver on policy. This was precisely what did for Ms Truss over fracking.The next example could be immigration. Record net migration figures this week show both that government policies are not working and that ministers do not know what to do about it. Since immigration control is crucial to some core Tory voters, ministers respond by making wild, undeliverable promises. Deportation to Rwanda was (and is) one. The latest aims to stop foreign students from attending all but a handful of elite universities. This would bankrupt many colleges, and reverse the 2019 expansion of foreign students to fill the collapse in student numbers and university income caused by Brexit.The year’s biggest challenge to Mr Sunak and Tory morale is potentially still around the corner. The Royal College of Nursing’s strikes in December pit the most admired workforce in Britain against an unpopular government. There can be only one winner. Public opinion, already notably sympathetic to other striking groups this winter, will harden. For the Tory party to start a battle with the nurses would suggest not just confusion but a death wish.Opposition party supporters naturally react cautiously to these signs of Conservative defeatism. They fear it can’t last. They recall how similar hopes have been dashed in the past. They worry that Labour has not yet done enough to seal the deal with the electorate. These worries are understandable. But they may also underestimate the shift in the national mood and its scale. The real question facing the Tory party this winter is not so much whether they can recover but whether, in their current state, they can now hold on until 2024 at all.