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The Conservatives are on their fourth term of government, and it would be unprecented for any party to win a fifth – at least here in modern Britain. The leader whose strengths helped to win them a majority of 80, Boris Johnson, was also the one whose weaknesses made relatively little of it – and then self-destructed.
His successor, Liz Truss, had no mandate. Nor does Rishi Sunak, who she defeated – and is essentially a creation of Tory MPs rather than Party activists. In between her victory and his election came her economic experiment, which blew the roof off the chemistry lab.
Four leadership elections in less than ten years and five Conservative prime ministers has done nothing to project consistency of purpose. With a resistant Lords and Tory MP refuseniks, Sunak would be in a tight spot even were it not for Covid, the Ukraine war, inflation, strikes and the continuing debate over what to make of Brexit.
In these circumstances, Sunak yesterday took the best strategic course open to him – namely, to make five pledges, channelling Tony Blair and Michael Howard, that he knows he is likely to hit: commitments on inflation, growth, debt, NHS waiting lists and small boats.
He won’t want voters to peer too closely at the small print. On inflation, he promises to halve inflation this year, but it is expected to come down from levels unprecedented in recent years. On growth, he is staking his shirt on a pre-election recovery after a record modern fall in living standards.
On debt, he pledges a drop – but from present levels and not those when this Parliament first sat (which was the commitment in the 2019 election manifesto). On NHS waiting lists, his promise mirrors his inflation one: a fall from present levels. On small boats, he commits to a Bill and removals, leaving open the possibility that, in 2024, the boats will still be coming.
The Prime Minister will have an answer to these points, if known unknowns and unknown unknowns don’t come for him first. “Look,” he will say. “I may not be most exciting politician in the world. But I’m the more reliable of the two before you. What I promise I then deliver.”
It may be unlikely that this pitch will work, but it’s not impossible. Some polls show Sunak performing competitively against Keir Starmer. Today, he is the remote technocrat besieged by strikes, recession, war and inflation. Tomorrow, he could yet be the comeback kid, if the strikes fade, growth resumes, the Ukraine war at least gets no worse, prices fall and living standards rise.
For the moment, Sunak is out of fashion. The one-time master of Brand Rishi is lampooned as an ineffective speaker. This partly reflects tough times and partly collective adjustment: journalists are unused to a Conservative Party not in daily meltdown. Sunak was sharper when it came to the Q & A. Were I CCHQ, I’d want him to debate Starmer, come 2024, as often as possible.
At some point before then, my media colleagues – Blair’s “feral beast” – will turn on Starmer, not because they prefer the Prime Minister but because they will want to show the Labour leader, as they do all politicians, who’s boss. In the meantime, Sunak is getting on with scraping not only the barnacles off the boat, as he sees it: Channel Four privatisation, Truss’s childcare plans.
Less is more. “People don’t want politicians who promise the earth and then fail to deliver,” he said, in what was the core line of the speech. Sunak produced the usual stuff about hope, and it wasn’t out of character – though he projects it less convincingly than Johnson, with his compulsion to optimism, and even, arguably, Truss.
But his fundamental appeal is as a politician of the head, not the heart. So on the one hand, you can argue that the managerial flavour of the speech rather suited him, since pretending to be someone you’re not doesn’t work. The maths pledge that trailed the speech will mean nothing to most voters. But it plainly means a lot to the Prime Minister, and so had the virtue of authenticity.
On the other hand, the speech, unlike the sums that he wants us learn, didn’t obviously add up. Evidently, there’s been debate in Downing Street about making one this week all. Heads you don’t, and the media asks where you are. (The Daily Star is asking readers to check their sheds and fridges “in case he’s trapped inside”). Tails you do – and you’re not ready.
Sunak suggested more to come: on anti-social social behaviour, small boats and especially the NHS. It would be surprising if the coming update on strikes that the Prime Minister referred to didn’t include the nurses. He made a lot of the competition rather than the co-operation principle in the NHS, but change will clearly be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
But for all his citations of change, voters may well conclude, insofar as they notice the event at all, that Sunak’s central message is: “it’s all very difficult” – not so much because of what he said as what he didn’t say. The best political speeches have a sense of personal mission and forward projection: Thatcher, Blair and Johnson could all find it.
The Prime Minister’s plan today, by contrast, was defensive rather than offensive. Many of the essential elements were there – bits of his life story, his parents’ work as a doctor and a pharmacist, his enthusiasm for tech, his love of family. But he has not yet found a message to that coheres by repetition – the equivalent of Lynton Crosby’s 2015 “long-term economic plan”.
And while the communication needs a bit of sharpening up, the substance requires some filling-out. Leaders always take a punt when stressing family on the virtue of their colleagues, and it’s not one on which they always get a return. Sunak’s sole policy pledge was more family hubs, a good one but not a game changer.
Which is what he needs most of all. For after all, his five point plan may not work. The Conservatives are a very long way behind Labour in the polls. Starmer is as unconvincing as Malcolm Gooderham claimed on this site earlier today, and while Labour hasn’t sealed the deal, Starmer has an eye for closing down weaknesses – and isn’t Jeremy Corbyn.
Yesterday may not have been the day for the Prime Minister to cast himself as the reasonable man whose patience is exhausted – which is where he’s heading to if his intentions on small boats are serious and the blob that despises them stays resourceful, as it. Some politicians use their heads, others speak from the heart, but the most successful somehow manage both.