Not so long ago, there was a handful of TV channels, no YouTube, no Instagram and no Twitter, or whatever it’s called now. Broadsheets sold more copies. Tabloids had more power. In that era of less consumer choice, political conferences had more cut-through. Especially the leader’s annual speech, delivered then in bigger halls.
So though Rishi Sunak’s address today, like Sir Keir Starmer’s next week, will engage his party and its watchers, most people won’t know that it even happened – and many of those who do will see only a social media clip or a mocking meme. The Prime Minister today was a man who must shout through a gale to be heard.
What he had to say was shaped, at least in part, by a civil servant’s slip-up. The best part of three weeks ago, an official walked into a familiar trap – exposing part of a document to a lurking photographer outside Downing Street. The Independent got the story and the Prime Minister’s plan went public. He was preparing to scrap the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2.
The classic politician’s response would have been to rush out the announcement and so kill media speculation – not to mention the campaign to abort his decision. Which is precisely what Sunak had done with Net Zero only a few days before. However, there was a difference. With climate change, he was ready to rock n’roll. With HS2, not so much.
A conventional operator would have lost no sleep, made the announcement anyway, and wriggled out of a tight spot – or else have put off the whole business until a later day. Not so good for a proper transport plan; not so bad for a politician in trouble. But one of the keys to Sunak is his firmness (if you’re a fan). Or his stubborness. (If you’re not.) Or his bloody-mindedness. (If you’re really, really not.)
The Prime Minister likes to get out his spreadsheets, pore them properly and won’t be rushed. So it came about that an announcement originally planned for later in the year somehow became a centre-piece of his speech, after a week of it dominating much of the conference coverage. In terms of media management, this was unconventional.
Nonetheless, it was in character – like the speech itself. I spent part of it trying to imagine what a cartoon villain would look like if designed by Sunak. And came up with a chain-smoking trans patient en route to a women’s hospital ward in a first class HS2 carriage. At first glance, that frantic jigsaw looks frighteningly random.
Downing Street’s reluctance to project this week’s key message has bolstered that impression. “Long-term decisions for a brighter future,” it proclaims (if you hadn’t noticed). Did someone say: “I have it! Long-term decisions.” And another: “Too gloomy. Brighter future!” And a third: “I have it! Long-terms decisions for a…
At any rate, Number Ten’s reticence has been felt elsewhere. Conservative conferences are now less for members than the corporates, and this one was topped and tailed by a train strike. Which made understanding this week very hard. If an activist queues to hear Liz Truss make a speech or ask Theresa May to sign a book, are they showing support…or just curious?
So be wary of reading too much into the spectrum of dissent that runs from naked hate to discreet manoeuvering. But platform calls for unity and counter-attacks from loyalists have been notably absent this week. Sunak abandoned the field to those who want him out. That may have consequences later.
Instead, he has sought to speak above his party to the public. And dumped most of his eggs into the basket of today’s speech (there were no new ones – another unusual piece of media management). The smoking announcement will stir the noisiest internal resistance. It came alongside a rehash of the NHS workforce plan, a mass of transport detail and the much-trailed A-level shake-up.
What binds these disparate elements into a coherent whole, if anything? In part, that they reflect the Prime Minister’s character: he’s a man who doesn’t smoke, wants value for money, and sees education as a leg up. And as a man who prizes fluency with numbers, he has one for us: three.
Sunak sees the NHS workforce plan, new infrastructure and “the new rigorous, knowledge rich Advanced British Standard…which will bring together A-Levels and T-Levels into a new, single qualification for our school leavers” as three big, historic reforms – on a par with the Cameron/Gove free schools offer or the Thatcher/Clarke GP fundholding.
His critics will point out that those Tory teams were in a position to deliver both. Sunak isn’t – at least not before the next election. It may be that Sir Keir Starmer, if he leads the next government, sticks to the workforce plan. And pulls at the nettle of exam reform. And leaves the Prime Minister’s transport shake-up untouched.
Sunak has thus asked questions of the man who plans to replace him. We’ll see more of that as the election campaign begins to gather pace. This conference has been one of the last big set-pieces before it takes place: the others being the King’s Speech, the Autumn Statement, the reshuffle (whenever that happens) and next year’s Budget.
There has been no revolt against the Prime Minister at this week’s conference. The Cabinet Ministers who would replace him don’t want the gig before the next election, thank you very much. Tory MPs know that a sixth leader in less than a decade and a third within two years would scuttle the ship.
Nonetheless, events have shaped this week rather than vice-versa. “Network North”…”Midlands Rail Hub”…”the Leeds tram”, the “North Wales main line”…”Upgrade the A1, the A2, the A5, the M6″…the A75 boosting links between Scotland and Northern Ireland…the Shipley bypass”…”the Blyth relief road”…”the Don Valley line”…”the energy coast line between Carlisle, Workington, and Barrow”.
It was strange to hear so much transport detail in a leader’s speech: Sunak the Tiny Controller, seizing the station tannoy. Yet he may get more from making a virtue of necessity (regional and local media will give his plans a fairer hearing than their national colleagues) than the values-based sections of the speech.
If you say that politics needs changing, but are yourself a politician, you may be chancing your arm. And if you want to proclaim change, you have to be change. The most dramatic way for the Prime Minister to communicate it today would have been for him to explain why he quit Boris Johnson’s Government, and how his warnings about Truss’s economic scheme turned out to be right.
In the interests of party unity, he let that possibility pass – and with it the chance to get a wider public to sit up and take notice. But in any event, Sunak isn’t an actor, a self-projector. Though fluent in debate or on the stump, he isn’t in the braggadacio business. It’s just not in his nature to move before he is willing.
Johnson, Truss, war, plague, prices, the worst fall in living standards on record. The Prime Minister is leading a tired army through the winter snows. Despite the odd shaft of recent sunlight, there’s no sign yet of the clouds breaking. He is putting his faith in his own character, his own inhibitions, strengths, weaknesses and instincts. And in the power of three.