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During the run-up to the 2015 general election, Lynton Crosby took the Conservative message, simplified it – and sloganised it. Who were the Tories for? “Hardworking people who play by the rules”. What would they do for you? Stick to their “long-term economic plan”. What would they deliver for Britain? “Security.”
These mantras were relelentlessly targeted at the average swing voter in the average marginal constituency. Tim Montgomerie, my predecessor as Editor of this site, had a word for such a place: Boringsville – a term he first deployed to describe the then winning Liberal strategy in Australia.
Isaac Levido, who worked with Crosby on that campaign, is his fellow Australian’s successor as 2024 approaches, and the force behind the plan that Rishi Sunak has set out. It’s Boringsville Revisited. Set five priorities, stick to them – and win re-election as a politician who keeps his promises.
They are “the people’s priorities”: inflation, growth, debt, the NHS small boats. Soundbites to sell them haven’t yet come. Perhaps they will before May’s local elections approach. Maybe the plan will work in time for the bigger, national contest when it comes. But it’s doubtful.
Eight years ago, the Conservatives were ahead on leadership, competence and the economy – which was then, as one of George Osborne’s advisers put it, going “gangbusters”. None of this applies now, and may not do in 2024, or whenever the poll takes place.
Furthermore, the Tories were up for a first re-election in 2015, having served for a Parliament under one leader. Next time round, they will be up for a fifth, having got through four leaders in eight years, three of them in 2022. One of them, Liz Truss, crashed the car. Her predecessor, Boris Johnson, had first taken it where he promised to (Brexit) and then veered off course.
The 2008 financial smash, Covid and Putin’s Ukraine war would make an election win for a fifth Conservative leader, Rishi Sunak, difficult at the best of times. After twelve or so years that have featured the Coalition, a majority Tory Government, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, the Brexit Party, Johnson, a Conservative landslide and Truss, one should be wary of predictions.
However, Sunak will have served as Prime Minister for 100 days tomorrow, and that’s long enough for first impressions. He is what he seems to be: a family man, hard-working, managerial in style, very religious, technocratic by inclination – decent, patriotic, serious. His warning about Trussonomics were on the money (literally).
A man can have all those qualitities but not be a politician. Is Sunak one? In a sense, the question is absurd: of course he is. After all, he has made it to the top of British politics after only eight years in the Commons. But that length of service makes one think.
Margaret Thatcher had been in the Commons for 20 years when she became Prime Minister, Tony Blair for 14, David Cameron for ten. The Prime Minister has held another great office of state, Chancellor of the Exchequer, before moving on to his present one. But he is relatively new to the game.
May used to say that “politics is not a game” – and was right to suggest that, here in Britain, its fundamentals are the people and their future. But it’s also about the stuff that made Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and Johnson election winners: in short, setting a sense of direction for the country.
Who are the Conservatives for? What would they do for you? What will he deliver for the country? In 2015, the Crosby-hiring Cameron had answers to all three questions. With the best will in the world, the Prime Minister hasn’t yet offered any to the first. And his answers to the second and third lack definition.
Politics isn’t a science. When studied, it’s a social science – not quite the same thing. In practice, it’s a kind of art or, perhaps, better, an alchemy: the four politicians named above conjured something new out of something old. In a word, they had imagination. They reinvented their parties and gave them a purpose.
In Thatcher’s case, the mission was modernising Britain. In Blair’s, it was modernising Labour and accepting Thatcher’s economic fundamentals. In Cameron’s, it became reducing the deficit. In Johnson’s, delivering Brexit. What is Sunak’s philospher’s stone?
Let me turn my case on its head. Assume for a moment that the Tory plan works. That the polls aren’t taking the don’t knows into account. That recent by-elections don’t imply a Labour landslide. That the economy recovers, and voters aren’t convinced by Keir Starmer. That 2024 turns out to be 1992 rather than 1997.
This isn’t impossible. For while the Prime Minister is stiff at scripted speeches, he’s fluent off the cuff. And for someone who may not be a politician by instinct, he’s turned out to be adept at PMQs. Come the election campaign proper, and before, he’ll want TV debates with Starmer daily: the economy, living standards and all that lies well outside the Labour leader’s comfort zone.
My point is that even if the Conservative strategy delivers, there is something banal, damaging and ultimately fatal about reducing politics to a tussle for a handful of swing voters in marginal seats (as Labour does also). Like any other country, Britain has problems: above all, in our case, the concentration of wealth, opportunity and power around one big city and among older people.
Sunak has no mandate from the voters. He would struggle to get new measures through Parliament. The election is less than two years away. But since he wants a full term as Prime Minister, he should start thinking now about what he’d do with one, and point to how he would tackle these core challenges. If he’s to be a Thatcher or a Blair, that means a lot more than five priorites.
The Prime Minister wants to win that election and also to do the decent thing – to be true to the standards by which he aspires to live. This systematic, tidy ex-hedge fund manager may find it hard to bear patiently with the media’s desire for sensation, the frailties of his colleagues, and the tiny attention span of modern politics.
My worry is that, as the media and Labour try to pick Ministers off by one, and the Johnson circus returns to town for two inquiries, Sunak retreats into himself, and becomes a prisoner of his virtues, disdaining the short-termism of so much political discourse. Sticking to the plan shrinks to micro-managing more; doing the right thing to bowing to conventional wisdom.
It’s striking that when he didn’t do so recently he scored a victory. There was no shortage of Ministers and officials warning him not to move Section 35 of the Scotland Act. He and Alister Jack took the plunge – and just did it. Today, one can see the panic in Nicola Sturgeon’s eyes as her trans ID policy crumbles all around her, with implications for the SNP’s future and its causes.
So there is something he can do soon to make some progress, rather than stay where he is and be mired by strikes and scandal. When a Home Secretary goes to the media and utters warnings about a major issue – as Sunak himself sees it – private debate in government is trembling on the verge of going public.
“I really do think that it’s the last chance for the Government to get this right,” Suella Braverman said yesterday about stopping the small boats. She thereby raised the fifth of those Sunak pledges. Will he see it through – breaking with that conventional thinking, as he did when backing Brexit? It not, he may still win, but to what end?