First, David Cameron resigned, after the Brexit referendum. But never mind. For the Conservatives had a replacement, Theresa May. Her pledge to redress “burning injustices” implied that he hadn’t done so. So she sounded like change. Polls suggested that voters liked it.
But then she couldn’t get a deal through the Commons, and had to go. But no matter. For the Tories had a successor, Boris Johnson. He promised to get Brexit done, negotiated an agreement, and saw it endorsed by the electorate in 2019.
However, campaigning was one thing and governing another, at least for Johnson. He lost the trust of Conservative MPs, and had to quit. But hang on. Yet again, the Tories had a substitute, Liz Truss. Voters knew little about her but seemed willing to give her a chance.
Then she crashed the car. Enter the man she had defeated, Rishi Sunak – in the wake of a plague, a war, two failed predecessors and a Party whose competence, the core of its electoral appeal, had collapsed.
So once, twice and three times in less than a decade, the Conservatives have got away with junking a failed leader and presenting his replacement as change for the better.
In Game of Thrones, Beric Dondarrion is killed six times, but then brought back to life. “Every time, I’m a bit less,” he says. “Bits of you get chipped away.”
The Tories have revived themselves recently through three new leaders and four election wins (if you count the 2010 result among them), but it would be unprecedented for them to win a fifth term, let alone a Dondarrion-style sixth.
For bits of them, and more, have been chipped away. The Prime Minister is frustrated that his work isn’t paying off with voters. But why would it? There are limits to their patience – especially amidst the worst fall in living standards on record.
So if they interpret the next election as a straightforward choice between the Conservatives and Labour, it is very hard to see how Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t walk out of it into Number Ten.
It follows that Sunak’s only hope of winning is for the next election not to be framed as Labour v Tory, but as Sir Keir v Change, since while the breadth of Labour’s support is wide, if the polls are any guide, its depth is shallow.
The Prime Minister is the unusual position of not having, to date, presented himself as change. Because he hasn’t tried to present himself as anything much.
When he entered Downing Street less than a year ago, Isaac Levido, the Conservatives’ main strategist, told him that the voters had given up on the Conservatives.
All Sunak could do to regain their trust was to commit himself to delivering a few priorities, and hope in doing so – or at least in trying to do so – to regain their trust.
Few doubt the effort, but many the result – for the five pledges are a work in progress, to put it mildly, though he may well deliver at least the core one, which is to halve inflation this year.
But even if they were delivered in spades, something would be missing. The great election winners of modern times – Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – were seen by voters as agents of change.
They had a tale to tell about the challenges facing Britain and how they could be met. Team Sunak knew from the start that a time would come when he had to tell his own story.
The Prime Minister arrives in Manchester today for this year’s Conservative Party Conference knowing that the time is now. What does he have to say for himself?
It’s been hard to hear his voice, during the run-up, through the noise. Much of what’s reported about his new plans has been leaked. Since his inner circle is tight and the Conservatives’ relations with the civil service is poor, there’s little mystery about who’s doing most of the briefing.
So we should take some of what we’ve read or seen about his proposals for Net Zero, A levels, smoking, driving zones, HS2, levelling up and the triple lock with a pinch of salt.
But not all: one can glimpse through the fog of reporting a preoccupation with value for money and an awareness of voter resistance, in Uxbridge and across Europe, to aspects of Net Zero when it begins to bite.
The Prime Minister’s agitation at HS2’s soaring bills represent the former and his new hostility to 20 mph driving zones the latter. Non-smoking Sunak is likely to smile on more tobacco bans, and he yearns for a new baccalaureate – a product of his preoccupation with maths.
These bits and pieces don’t fit together as a story of change, but the shape of the Prime Minister’s jigsaw, if he has one, won’t be in place until the end of the conference, if then.
Were he unconstrained by the electoral cycle and possessed of a personal mandate, he could get busy with what must sooner or later be done – namely, reforming public services, scaling back the growth in state spending, and cutting taxes.
And even within his present constraints, he could begin more thoroughly, as recent governments haven’t, truly to take back control – or rather, to empower the people to do so.
The streets are theirs, not Extinction Rebellion’s to block. So too should be bank accounts, regardless of customers’ views. So, above all, are borders.
But the first rule of a leader’s speech is that he must be comfortable with it. It would do Sunak no good to pretend to be someone he isn’t, and his natural tendency is to enthuse about science, maths and tech.
That he hasn’t been a story-teller to date doesn’t mean that he hasn’t a story to tell. His Net Zero speech made the point that he’s a newish kid on the block. He wasn’t even in Parliament during the Coalition era.
This will be his first conference speech as Party leader, and only his second to it in three years. He could reasonably ask it, and the audience beyond, who takes a stand on what he believes is right – him or Sir Keir?
“You think I raised taxes too high?” he could ask on Wednesday. “Maybe. But remember: I quit the Government rather than raise them higher. You think politicians tell people what they want to hear? Perhaps.”
“But I said last year that just cutting taxes would risk market confidence. Not enough of you listened. Now think about what happened next.” Tactless? Sure. Counter-productive? Possibly.
But the sum of recent polls suggests that voters are beginning to engage with politics again. And the reaction to his speech in the bubble will matter less than that of voters more widely, insofar as they notice at all.
The odds against Sunak are fabulously long, and voters may well plump for the man who tells them what they want to hear (Sir Keir) rather than a man who tells them unpalatable truths.
Nonetheless, the Prime Minister can’t please all of the people all of the time, or even much of his Party for most of the time. So he must settle for pleasing enough of the people in enough of the time he has left, or trying to.
Which means taking some risks. At first glance, that’s out of character. Look a bit longer, and seems less so. Can Sunak really be an agent of change? We’re about to find out.