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

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 is 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 feel it is time for change—persuading them they already have the guy to do it would reap rewards. The Tories have pulled off this trick before. Yet even admirers doubt Sunak can recreate it. One cabinet ally admits it is “impossible to cut through with that argument”.

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

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

Either he lacked the drive for a violent rupture with the past or he did not feel safe enough—he understands that for many of his MPs, he is the leader on sufferance. The message that he at last brings “long-term thinking” may be a criticism of Johnson, but it is also too subtle to compel attention.

 

It was never straightforward. Sunak was, after all, a conviction Brexiter and an early Johnson admirer who stood with him until virtually the last moment. And while he wants to separate himself from his personal mistakes, his only feasible electoral path is staying with the Johnson electoral coalition and programme. But Sunak’s version of this lacks Johnson’s propensity to spend, his instinctive optimism, and the terror of Jeremy Corbyn to keep liberal Tories in line.

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The failure to make that break will be underlined by the COVID inquiry. Johnson is set to give evidence early next month, and Sunak (whose anti-lockdown arguments caused Johnson to call his team the “pro-death squad”) soon after. It has already made for sad headlines. Sunak’s gracious approach should shield him from the most lurid stories—obscene WhatsApp messages are not his style—but he will be linked again in the public consciousness with his predecessor.

 

It is far from evident that Sunak actually believes in the current plan. This week’s King’s Speech, detailing his final legislative agenda before the election, provided little to suggest the fresh momentum of a changing government.

 

The last king’s speech of a parliament is necessarily thinner and more contentious, which is useful for framing the electoral battleground. But, while there are some fascinating proposals on smoking and digital markets, the high-profile initiatives—especially on criminal justice and renewal of oil and gas licenses—are all about painting dividing lines with Labour in ways that shore up the Tory core vote.

 

This means Sunak is wasting his chance to project real change. His party convention address has come and gone with no consequence. His king’s speech has whimpered rather than shouted. All he has left are a likely cabinet change, the autumn spending statement, and the March budget. People close to the financial events caution against expectations of any remarkable transformation. One sees the task in this month’s autumn statement as “holding off the headbangers” demanding unrealistic tax cuts.

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But this is a manifestation of the party’s strategic disarray. Sunak displays radical pretensions in a “safety-first” setting. What he really offers is leadership that unsportingly faces the facts of economic life for his party. The inconsistencies are emphasised in the King Speech. This 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 underscores why the “change” story will not convince the public and why, with his MPs losing patience, the Conservatives are going to spend their final year bouncing between electoral arguments. From “I am the change” to “Things are looking up; stay the course” and eventually just “You can’t trust Labour”.

 

The second letter, which outlined Sunak’s initial and innate strategy of making five promises to be held accountable for, continues to inspire greater hope among some allies. It appears likely that he will deliver on his promise to cut inflation to 5.3% by year’s end, maybe even in time for the Autumn Statement. All of this will add to the attraction of the “things are improving” narrative.

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However, it portends badly for the government and the election campaign. Sunak cannot be both the change candidate and the continuity candidate. Is he a reassuringly reliable man or a radical reformer? Self-image also affects decision-making. Is this a cautious or audacious government, as in the case of tax cuts?

 

Faced with flat polling and drift, even this tactic could fall away when combined with “You can’t trust Labour”. This is where the campaign is probably intended to land, not least because it is the sole unifying theme.

 

Essentially, electoral strategy is the epitome of an issue that originates inside Westminster. But it also shows a lack of political clarity, the hallmark of an administration still working out not only what it wants to say but also what it is attempting to be.

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