Tories insist Rishi Sunak has ‘steep and narrow’ path to victory despite lagging in polls

Rishi Sunak will have to scale a “steep and narrow path” to pull off a General Election victory this year, says a senior Tory official.

Alan Mabbutt, the Conservatives’ registered treasurer and legal officer, told party supporters that the election campaign would be “one of the hardest our party has ever fought”.

The election is expected to take place in the autumn after what will effectively be a gruelling ten-month campaign.

By then, party chiefs hope to have closed the large poll gap behind Labour, currently between 15 to 20 points.

Key to achieving this would be easing the cost-of-living crisis hitting millions of people across Britain.

Mr Sunak met his pledge to halve inflation last year, with the rate down to 3.9 per cent by November.

But many families are still struggling after mortgage bills soared and the annual cost of gas and electricity is still on average at around £1,900.

Labour’s strategy will focus on asking people if they feel better off, or not, after what it calls 14 years of Tory failure.

As both parties are ramping up efforts to build election warchests, Mr Mabbutt told Conservative supporters: “I’m known for my blunt talk. So I’m going to level with you.

“This campaign will be one of the hardest our party has ever fought. The path to victory is steep and narrow.”

Ministers insist they can still win another term in office and polls often narrow closer to elections.

However, some Tory parliamentarians believe there is little chance that Mr Sunak can get sufficient electoral uplift to rescue Tory fortunes after the economic chaos unleashed by the brief Liz Truss administration, controveries of Boris Johnson’s premiership and economic damage from Brexit.

In an end-of-year analysis, Tory peer Lord Barwell, a former Croydon MP who was Theresa May’s chief-of-staff, argued: “The Conservative brand is too damaged for them to win the next election, but right now the alternative is not getting the scrutiny it should be getting because of the continuing Conservative soap opera over Rwanda et al.

“If the party unites behind its leader, focuses on delivery, develops a compelling manifesto and gives space for the media to scrutinize the alternative, a 1997 style defeat is *not* inevitable. But that is what’s coming if it carries on as it is.”

The main political parties are ratcheting up their election machines in time for a May election which Mr Sunak may opt for if there is a sudden turnaround for the Tories in the polls.

Candidates will soon be selected for a swathe more seats, with Labour likely to leave until late picking one for Islington North where Jeremy Corbyn may stand as an independent.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is expected to slash taxes in a pre-election giveaway Budget on March 6, with income tax and inheritance tax possibly being targeted.

But many political experts still believe an autumn election is more likely and that even then the Tories will be fighting against the odds, with key issues expected to be the economy, NHS waiting lists and “small boats” crisis.

Sir John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, told The Standard: “Given the failure of the Conservatives to secure any significant recovery so far from the damage that was inflicted on their popularity by Liz Truss’ ill-fated administration, the task facing Rishi Sunak to turn things around in the next nine to ten months now looks a very substantial one.”

Labour’s poll leads appeared more down to “discontent with the Government rather than enthusiasm for the Opposition”.

He added: “Sir Keir Starmer will need to ensure that Labour firms up the support that it already has to ensure it wins an overall majority.”

The Labour leader is under growing pressure to flesh out details of what Labour would do in office and once he does his decisions will come under growing scrutiny, as was his stance on a Gaza ceasefire.

Mr Sunak, though, has seen his personal popularity dragged down towards Conservative Party levels, making it harder to run a presidential-style election campaign.

The Tories are also facing an election battle on two fronts from Reform UK, which will increase massively if Nigel Farage takes over at its helm, and on the other side from the Liberal Democrats.

Lib-Dem leader Sir Ed Davey will on Wednesday visit constituencies in London’s commuter belt where his party is in second place to the Conservatives.