Rishi Sunak has tricks up his sleeve. He is one of the Cabinet’s most incisive communicators. So he could do worse than post some of those social media videos that Boris Johnson used to excel in using.
And he could take a leaf out of David Cameron’s book, and use Mondays to make big speeches – not too often, but enough to set the political agenda for the week, or try to, before others set it for him.
And he could tell the story of how his own rise from an ordinary life in Southampton helped to propel him towards public service – and how he wants to open up for others the opportunities he has had.
But you will rightly point out that these devices are tactical rather than strategic. It’s all very well having an image. What Sunak needs most is a message to which voters will listen.
Gaining permission to be heard, as Conservative modernisers put it, will be far from easy. Admittedly, the Prime Minister’s ratings are better than his party’s, and polls tend to show him leading Starmer on the economy.
Nonetheless, the Tories are on their fourth term in government. Gaining a fifth would be unpredented in any event. But Covid, Putin’s war, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Sunak’s own taxes have wasted the Conservatives’ original Commons majority of 80.
The Prime Minister has raised the Tory poll rating from the low to high 20s in Politico’s poll of polls. Translate that score into a general election and Labour would win a landslide.
Sunak was shut away in Chequers this weekend planning for the New Year – having grasped, correctly, that there is little the Government can do to improve its standing before Christmas.
There is undoubtedly a major speech coming, and he could start by pointing out that although the Conservatives have held power for 12 years, he’s been in Parliament for scarcely more than half of them.
Striking the right balance between paying continuity with the past (the Tory Parliamentary Party is full of Cameron-era Ministers) and change for the future is never easy.
But the next election looks, as I write, like being a change contest – so the Prime Minister must present himself as a force for it. More importantly, he must be one. Where and how, given the lack of his own mandate and Parliamentary time?
First, there is the economy – or rather what Sebastian Payne calls “the palpable economy”, in other words the bits that people experience, such as electricity bills, jobs, supermarket prices. His room for manoeuvre here is extremely limited.
Johnson is the only one of Sunak’s comparable predecessors to have been returned to government in a general election, but there is no convincing equivalent of his and George Osborne’s “long-term economic plan”.
Even inflation, which the Prime Minister can convincingly present as a personal foe, is out of his hands – since Putin, with his war in Ukraine, and Bank of England, with its power to shape interest rates, are the main players.
The best that Sunak can do is to lay the ground, with Jeremy Hunt, for a Spring Budget focused on growth. They could look at Adam Hawksbee, Tom Clougherty and Sam Richards‘ pieces on this site last week for ideas.
Tory MPs seem determined to block the most important supply-side measure of all – planning reform – but there is play in Richards’ proposals for regulatory change, Clougherty’s for more business investment and Hawksbee’s for local control.
Second, there is the growing sense that nothing works – that you can’t get a driving licence, passport, flight abroad, GP appointment, hospital operation, or train when you want one.
And that although public services get record public spending, they don’t always offer value for money. As David Gauke points out in his column on this site today, the NHS is “around 16 per cent less productive than before the pandemic”.
The mills of reform may grind exceeding small, but they also grind slowly. Sunak has no manifesto mandate, for example, for a Bill that would outlaw strikes in essential public services. It would undoubtedly get held up in the Lords.
The Prime Minister would do best to start with small but visible improvements. He is badly placed to turn round NHS productivity in less than two years, but better able to just shut down Just Stop Oil – or at least stop them closing roads at will. Or is he?
For the courts have ruled that protestors’ rights sometimes trump others‘ – one of the many consequences of Tony Blair’s Government importing the European Convention of Human Rights into domestic law by means of the Human Rights Act.
This takes us to a third immediate problem that Sunak must tackle: small boats. Allowing asylum applications from abroad would be likely only to raise the numbers without stopping the journeys.
Better deals with France would be welcome but, given the length of the Normandy coastline and the durability of the gangmasters’ commercial model, unlikely to stop the boats either.
Which leaves alternatives of doing nothing much at all or thinking the problem though, as Nick Timothy does for the Centre for Policy Studies today and Richard Ekins has been doing for Policy Exchange.
The sum of Timothy’s argument that people who enter the country illegally should either be returned to a safe country, if they come from one; or be removed to Rwanda, or else be detained without the right to appeal for asylum.
It is hard to believe that such a policy, if implemented, would not have a deterrent effect. A question that follows is whether the Government’s law officers and the Parliamentary Tory left would support it – and whether delivering it would win votes.
For voters may not put as much faith in Sunak stopping the boats as they did in Johnson Getting Brexit Done. On balance, he could probably get a Bill to enact Timothy’s policy through Parliament before the next election.
In the last resort, the courts will do what Parliament requires them to do, but the European Court of Human Rights is under no such constraint.
Timothy’s solution is to bring Human Rights home, though not in the sense that Blair used the phrase. He wants to take decisions on the European Convention away from the court, and put then into the hands of MPs.
So it would be up to people we elect here, rather than judges abroad over which we’ve not control, to make decisions about how the rights set out in the Convention are balanced.
This is drastic stuff, with implications for the Northern Ireland settlement and the EU trade deal, and some will say that the Government should simply absorb the 40,000 or so people who the gangmasters have smuggled in this year.
But if Ministers accept that end, what’s the upward limit? What are the implications of abandoning border control – for the Conservatives and, more importantly, the country?
Every Prime Minister must surely, at some turning point during his term, catch himself in the mirror, and wonder who the person is who stares back. Who is Sunak?
Is he the plutocrat that his wealth suggests? Or the Conservative that his story suggests – his rise from modest circumstances on the south coast, his euroscepticism as a young man, his backing Brexit in the referendum?
We may be about to find out. It could be that Sunak’s very moderation makes him a more compelling advocate for such a policy than others would be.