Good morning. Stephen continues to rest and recuperate. I’ve decided to start a rumour that he is on a ballooning holiday in Alaska. Pass it on.

New this morning: growth in average regular pay rose to 6.7 per cent in the final three months of 2022 compared with the previous year. That figure is both (a) higher than expected and (b) well below the 10.5 per cent inflation rate.

The cost of living vice kept tightening through to the end of the year — all of which may help explain why the UK electorate has such a downer on the government.

A one-horse race?

Right now, the Labour party is more than 20 points ahead of the Conservatives. I feel I have to state that baldly, even though it is not new. It has been the case since October. But I increasingly feel as though the Westminster Village has not quite absorbed the arithmetic as it currently stands — nor just how long Labour has been so far ahead.

There has been talk about whether the coming election might be akin to the 1992 election (when Labour lost) or 1997 (when it won with a landslide). Others have picked 2010, when the opposition fell short of a majority. ConservativeHome, the Tory activist site, mused about whether last week’s West Lancashire by-election might hint at the Tories fighting Labour back to a hung parliament.

I am unconvinced. Labour probably needs to be six to eight points clear to win a majority. You would have to bet on them getting there. With every week that passes with the two parties so far apart, the road back for the Tories gets steeper and narrower. Yes, Sir Keir Starmer is not the world’s most charismatic man, but it seems to be working out for his party.

Take Electoral Calculus’s poll from last week, conducted by pollster Find Out Now. First, the headline figures. Depending on which technique they use for handling the don’t-knows, they put the Labour lead at either 25 or 28 per cent. Put another way, they find about two Labour voters for every Tory in the country.

Their results came from a multilevel regression and post-stratification model, or MRP — a statistical technique treated by British political types as something approximating witchcraft. Their outputs have Labour picking up more than 500 seats — with the Tories on just 45. As Chris Curtis of Opinium has noted, there is a curiosity here: the MRP finds swing working in slightly unusual ways which may be overstating the scale of implied Tory losses.

But, on the other side of the ledger, if you scroll down the MRP list of seats that are turned over, you can quickly spot a familiar old pattern of midterm polling: tactical voters are not voting tactically in the polls (or the model is not capturing it). So, for example, they have Dominic Raab holding on in Esher and Walton against the Liberal Democrats by the skin of his teeth, in rather improbable circumstances. Not capturing tactical voting is likely to flatter the Tories.

If the Scottish National party continues to fray in Scotland, too, Labour is likely to be the main beneficiary.

I raise all this because there is a general bias against expecting drama in Westminster, but people should take the prospect of an absolutely epochal battering for the Conservatives more seriously. (Jonn Elledge has made this point forcefully in his newsletter.)

It is certainly not nailed on. I generally dislike reasoning from precedent in politics because you end up with daft rules of thumb (see this masterpiece) and over-fitted over-extrapolation. But Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, has set out some useful notes showing that there are plenty of examples of governing parties closing big gaps from the midterm point.

People do drift back and forth over a parliament. There was higher volatility in the last elections on some measures than in previous elections. The 2017 and 2019 elections both saw a lot of late movement — so maybe Labour should be more anxious about swingbacks.

But these average movements are not decreed by law or fixed in nature. The big picture (as Will Jennings has noted in his Substack) is that the Conservative party has been in decline since 2021: it racked up a solid lead over Labour as the Covid-19 vaccine was delivered. But since then, the air has been coming out of the tyres. The vaccine boost has faded. What are left now are a cost of living crisis plus a public services disaster.

A poll is, of course, not a forecast. But these problems will not be “fixed”. Though inflation will fall back, the cost of living crisis will persist as wages fail to keep up. Growth looks dire (not helped, we heard yet again yesterday, by Brexit).

On the public services, there is not much of a plan for ending the wave of strikes, let alone restoring service levels. A&Es will remain something people take pains to avoid. And while NHS waiting lists might shorten, the experience for millions of patients will be waiting months for treatment.

If you look beyond services, Feargal Sharkey, the Northern Irish musician, was on TV this morning discussing why so many rivers are full of sewage — and putting the blame on ministers. These are strong (and suspiciously coloured) currents for the government to swim against.

So, yes: Rishi Sunak has managed to stabilise the Tory position after the Liz Truss fiasco. But he remains stuck in a truly terrible position. He is making no further progress at improving their lot. Indeed, Sunak’s once-good personal ratings have been wrecked by association with his party’s.

It is hard to see how Sunak can claw back enough in the polls to save himself by the next general election.

On the other side of the fence, Starmer has shown a pretty good instinct for feeling his way through without scaring the voters. Your central working assumption should be a Labour majority government.

Sharper images

At this point, I must confess to spending five years working at the BBC as Newsnight’s public policy editor. So I read the coverage of Richard Sharp, the BBC chair, with particular interest.

Sharp’s failure to reveal his strange role as Boris Johnson’s informal financial adviser led the DCMS committee this week to urge him to “consider the impact his omissions will have on trust in him, the BBC and the public appointments process”. Jonathan Dimbleby, the former host of Any Questions, said last night that Sharp had to resign.

This inspires two thoughts.

First, well, obviously: yes. Duh. Propriety matters. Especially at the BBC — a large public institution spending public money which (necessarily) does not have direct democratic accountability.

But, second: if he stays, he remains a much-weakened figure. The revelations have left him hamstrung inside Broadcasting House, and made it much easier for the institution to push back against him.

Whatever happens now, Sharp matters a lot less than he did last week.

Now try this

I have spent years attempting to keep my favourite restaurant in London a secret. Not coincidentally, it is next door to the BBC. I was furious that the Guardian gave it a glowing review a few years ago. Hoi polloi! But Sushi Atelier on Great Portland Street deserves to be popular and if anything, that review undersells it. Get the omakase sushi lunch set. Save the fatty tuna for last.

Top stories today

  • ‘We will do whatever it takes’ | Rishi Sunak has said Britain will keep its air force on standby to take down any unidentified objects or suspected Chinese spy balloons that enter national airspace.

  • Home and away | The UK government has been urged by tax experts to reform and clarify laws around homeworking, as they warned more people were being caught up in “complicated and inconsistent” rules.

  • The wild west of credit | The government has set out proposals overnight to clamp down on buy now, pay later schemes, including banning them from further lending if they breach its rules.

  • Calls for update on levelling up projects | The UK Treasury is under growing pressure to identify the local economic regeneration projects that will be delayed as a result of a crackdown on spending by Michael Gove’s levelling up department.

  • Ford changes focus | Ford will cut 3,800 jobs across Europe, including 1,300 roles in the UK, as it pares back its range of models and prepares to stop selling engine-driven cars later this decade.

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