UK's Conservatives fear losing younger voters as lawmakers leave

FILE PHOTO: UK voters take part in local elections

By Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) - When Conservative lawmaker Dehenna Davison announced she would stand down at Britain's next election, the 29-year-old said her years spent in politics meant she hadn't "had anything like a normal life for a twenty-something".

Seen as a rising star after first being elected in 2019 and becoming a minister three months ago, Davison is one of 14 Conservative lawmakers so far who have decided to call time on their political careers, some of them prematurely.

For several, like Davison, it's a chance to step away from what has been years of almost non-stop, often chaotic, politics, with the removal of two prime ministers, an ever-changing roll call of ministers, numerous U-turns and COVID-19 remote working.

But her decision has raised fears in the party that the departure of younger lawmakers reflects its collapse of support in opinion polls among voters at a similar stage in life who see the party as having failed to tackle a housing shortage and lack of affordable childcare after 12 years in power.

Two senior Conservatives said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak would have to come up with a new head-turning policy offer next year or risk losing even more lawmakers who see little or no chance of winning the next election expected in 2024.

"He's got one chance - the spring budget when he can show us he can be aspirational and less of a manager," said one minister on condition of anonymity.

A former minister said while the party's electoral prospects might be enough for some to stand down, others might have "simply had enough".

"I wouldn't blame them after the sort of three years we have just had. It's frankly not been any fun."

With at most just over two years before the next election, which must be held by January 2025, Sunak is under pressure to not only steer the country through what could be a long recession and punishing cost-of-living crisis but to renew, and widen, the governing party's appeal with voters.

It will be no mean feat.

The main opposition Labour Party are running more than 20 points ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls.

30-45 YEAR OLDS

The Conservative Party had given lawmakers until Dec. 5 to say whether they intended to stand down at the next election to give time to appoint, train and campaign for new candidates.

Fourteen had gone public with their intentions by Monday but others might have communicated their desire privately and more could announce their plans at a later stage, if they fear that they could lose their parliamentary seats.

So far, this is still fewer than the 32 Conservative lawmakers who stepped down before the 2019 election, and yet losses like Davison are particularly unsettling for the party.

She was one of a new intake of so-called "red wall" lawmakers, who won in traditionally Labour-supporting constituencies in 2019 in northern and central England, often for the first time.

Several Conservative lawmakers have said in recent months they were looking at alternative careers, particularly after the short-lived, turbulent premiership of Liz Truss, who was ousted when her tax-cutting economic programme sent markets into a tailspin.

But some still hope Sunak can turn things around. His approval ratings of 47% according to Ipsos pollster are nowhere near as low as his party's at 26%, and above those of Labour leader Keir Starmer in some surveys.

To win the party must keep its seats in northern and central England, and win over 30-45 year-olds voters.

That cohort helped deny the Conservatives a majority in 2017, but then swung behind former prime minister Boris Johnson two years later, said James Johnson, 30, a pollster who worked for former prime minister Theresa May.

"Young people are going, well what have done for us?" said Johnson. "If either the Conservatives or Labour get stuck in the trap of just offering stability then they are not going to win the next election."

With 57 the average age when people become Conservative voters, according to the think tank Onward, it is a problem Ella Robertson Mckay, 31, knows only too well as chair of Conservative Young Women.

Britain has - together with the Czech Republic - the joint highest childcare costs among major advanced economies, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, while the chances of a young adult owning a home has halved in the past two decades.

"The reality is housing is not going to be solved unless some difficult decisions get made ... and I do think the party that cracks childcare could win the next election," Mckay said.

She describes a tension within the Conservatives between those lawmakers with more rural seats who do not back targets for housebuilding and others who acknowledge that houses have to built in large numbers. Anti-housing building target lawmakers gained the upper hand late on Monday, when they won a government U-turn on making any targets mandatory.

But she is still hopeful Sunak can turn things around by first shoring up the economy and tackling inflation.

"Beyond that, I think we need a set of policies which say to voters who are under 40: the life goals you had to do as well or a bit better than your parents are within reach," she said.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Andrew MacAskill, additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)