The strategic confusion at the heart of Rishi Sunak’s final push

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Having given the country three prime ministers in the space of four months, the Conservatives are now set for three election strategies in a year. In fairness, the current plan to promote Rishi Sunak as the true change candidate for the next election was never an easy sell; not the least of its problems being that trying to make competence “the change” inevitably reminds voters of the two preceding comedy premiers his party inflicted upon them.

Setting Sunak up as the man to transform Britain had some logic. Between two-thirds and four-fifths of voters say it is time for change — persuading them they already have the man to deliver it would reap rewards. The Tories have pulled off this trick before. Yet even supporters doubt Sunak can replicate it. One cabinet ally admits it is “impossible to cut through with that argument”.

Perhaps in the hands of a more ruthless or shameless operator, Boris Johnson, say, this might have worked. But on becoming leader, Sunak shied away from a defining assault on his predecessor and simply hoped the difference in style and integrity would suffice.

Either he lacked the appetite for a brutal rupture with the past or did not feel secure enough — he knows that for many of his MPs he is leader on sufferance. The message that he at last brings “long term thinking” may be a rebuke to Johnson, but it is also too subtle to command attention.

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It was never straightforward. Sunak was, after all, a conviction Brexiter and an early Johnson backer who stayed within him until almost the last moment. And while he wants to distance himself from the personal failings, his only viable electoral path is sticking with the Johnson electoral coalition and manifesto. But Sunak’s version of this lacks Johnson’s readiness to spend, his innate optimism and the fear of Jeremy Corbyn to keep liberal Tories in line.

The failure to make that break will be emphasised by the Covid inquiry. Johnson is due to give evidence early next month, Sunak (whose anti-lockdown arguments led Johnson to call his team the “pro-death squad”) soon after. It has already made for grim headlines. Sunak’s courteous manner should spare him from the most lurid stories — obscene WhatsApp messages are not his style — but he will be linked again in the public mind with his predecessor.

It is far from clear that Sunak really believes in the current strategy. This week’s King’s Speech, outlining his final legislative programme before the election, did little to suggest the fresh impetus of a changed government.

The last King’s Speech of a parliament is inevitably thinner and more partisan, useful for framing the election battleground. But, while there are some interesting proposals on smoking and digital markets, the high-profile measures — notably on criminal justice and renewal of oil and gas licences — are all about drawing dividing lines with Labour in ways which shore up the Tory core vote.

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This means Sunak is wasting his chance to project real change. His party conference speech has come and gone with negligible impact. His King’s Speech has squeaked rather than roared. All he has left are a possible cabinet reshuffle, the autumn spending statement and March budget: those close to the financial events caution against expectations of any spectacular shift. One describes the task in this month’s autumn statement as “holding off the headbangers” demanding unaffordable tax cuts.

But this is a manifestation of the party’s strategic confusion. Sunak represents radical pretensions in a “safety-first” setting. The change he truly offers is to a leadership which unsportingly confronts his party with economic realities. The King’s Speech highlights the contradictions. His is a small state party extending the reach of regulation; a defender of free speech demanding the cancellation of pro-Palestinian rallies; a hardline law and order party asking judges not to jail people because prisons are full, and a low-tax party presiding over the highest tax burden in decades.

All of which highlights why the “change” narrative will not convince the public and why — with his MPs losing patience — the Conservatives are going to spend their final year shifting between electoral arguments. From “I am the change” to “Things are looking up, stay the course” and finally just to “You can’t trust Labour”.

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Some allies still see more hope in the second message — Sunak’s original and instinctive approach when he made five pledges to be measured against. He looks likely to meet his pledge to see inflation halved to 5.3 per cent by the end of year, perhaps even in time for the Autumn Statement. All of this will add to the appeal of the “things are improving” narrative. 

But it bodes ill for the election campaign and for the government. Sunak cannot be both change and the continuity candidate. Is he a radical reformer or reassuringly dependable? Self-image also affects decision making. Is this a government of bold strokes — say on tax cuts — or prudence?

Faced with stagnant polls and drift, even this strategy could fall away, to merge with, “You can’t trust Labour”. This is where the campaign is probably destined to land, not least because it is the only unifying message.

At one level, electoral strategy is the definition of an inside-Westminster issue. But it also signals a lack of political clarity, the sign of a government still working out not only what it wants to say, but what it is trying to be.

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