The more one thinks about it, the more discontinous it seems. Rishi Sunak has concentrated during his less-than-a-year as Conservative leader on five priorities. I’m not sure how important reducing government debt is to voters, and the goal of faster growth will be a bit abstract to many of them, but the cost of living, small boats and the health service undoubtedly preoccupy lots of people.
Now, at a stroke, the Prime Minister has stressed three preoccupations: reforming A-levels, the NHS workforce plan, and northern transport (for the second of those, some are substituting the proposed smoking ban – the most eye-catching of the four and also the quickest to implement).
I wouldn’t have said that any of these were at the front of most voters’ minds – though the regional and local media will be kinder than their national colleagues to Sunak about the replacement of part of HS2 by other schemes. If, as in, say, Carlisle or North Wales or Blyth, you aren’t going to gain much from HS2, you will surely welcome the shift (assuming you hear about it and think new projects in your area will happen).
Some see the HS2 move, the timing of which was forced on the Prime Minister, as a big signal of radical change – a sign that he will take on the consensus forged by his predecessors.
David Cameron’s attack on the HS2 decision will bolster that view. But I suspect James Frayne of Public First, our former columnist, reads the issue about right – namely, as a matter important only to a small minority of voters either way. Add into the mix the fact that few people listen to political speeches anyway, and I doubt the announcement will have immediate cut-through.
Back in July, I asked whether Sunak’s party conference speech would “set out a plan to truly take back control”. There is overlap between what I wrote then and what he said yesterday. The Prime Minister’s stress on change is one, his relative newness in office another.
What he has also done is to take his own preoccupations, his own ideas, and put them at the core of what he wants to do. As I say, they are a bit remote from the front-of-house concerns of the electorate – most of which doesn’t worry much, if at all, about shaking up the exams that students take at 18.
Nonetheless, Sunak’s new agenda has one unmissable virtue about it. His speech yesterday observed a cardinal rule of modern politics. Namely, don’t try to spin a story that you don’t believe it. Voters will spot the inauthenticity at once.
Like Frank Sinatra, the Prime Minister’s motto that He’ll Do It His Way. It’s as though he’s said to himself: “Drat all this advice. I’m a long way behind in the polls. So I might as well do some stuff that really tickles my fancy.” Perhaps the strongest impression his Net Zero and HS2 changes will make on people is that Sunak is a man who believes in value for money.
Which is true. His best hope is that voters gradually latch on to that fact, like the shift in tack, can’t shake off their reservations about Sir Keir Starmer, and vote accordingly.