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Marketing General Election

Stability with these Tories or chaos with those Tories - Sunak's choice to Britain


By Alastair Duncan, Co-founder

November 15, 2023 | 7 min read

Nostalgia is a powerful force for many brands. But the cuddly nature of familiar characters is a gloss for politicians, argues Alastair Duncan.

Rishi Sunak meets David Cameron

/ Rishi Sunak. X

You’d be forgiven for feeling some sympathy for Rishi Sunak. With the government relentlessly stuck at 20 points behind Labour in the polls, he’s reshuffled the cabinet, picking a team for the election ahead. I’m calling it the Tetley Tea reshuffle, as he’s reintroducing a former brand character to polish up his reputation.

Former prime minister David Cameron is in as foreign secretary, sending political media and watchers of politics into a spin, or a sit-down and a cup of tea. It’s a bold move, not least in timing, with the Cameron drama overtaking the departure of the controversial Suella Braverman as the main story.

Braverman has been a distracting problem for some time. As the most talked about politician in the UK for the past month, she has been preparing for a leadership challenge on Sunak. Her rhetoric had become very provocative, evidenced by the shabby behavior of English Defence League hooligans at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day.

On the other hand, her favourability ratings are even lower than Sunak’s (15% according to YouGov), and she was pretty ineffective as home secretary, delivering no progress on any of the Tory goals to reduce asylum seekers.

As we know from so many great brand campaigns, nostalgia using familiar characters can be hugely valuable. The Tetley Tea folk resurgence earlier in the decade is a great case study. ‘Bring out the Branston,’ first used in the 1970s for Branston Pickle, is now returning.

Rishi Sunak has also been looking into the kitchen cupboard for a strategy from 1970, the last time former prime minister (and Old Etonian) Alec Douglas Home was appointed to Edward Heath’s government as foreign secretary. Will David Cameron’s appointment now reverse Tory fortunes?

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He last drifted out of public consciousness back in 2016 when he resigned as prime minister, whistling a jaunty tune. More avid political observers will be aware of his dubious financial dealings as a lobbyist for Lex Greensill. ‘An unelected foreign secretary appointed by an unelected prime minister’ according to one Conservative MP source.

The general public is more familiar with the Danny Dyer clip calling him out for walking away from solving the Brexit crisis precipitated by the EU referendum. And he is associated with harsh austerity policies that have so affected public services so much.

On the world stage, Sunak’s visit to Israel had zero effect on the debate over Palestine, so maybe Cameron can provide something more serious and statesmanlike. He brings an air of confidence and, most importantly for the Conservatives right now, competence.

Voters tend to resort to the familiar in troubled times or demand change. This move signals the death of Sunak’s ‘candidate of change’ strategy (he mentioned change 30 times in his conference speech just over a month ago). It always lacked credibility when he was so intrinsically associated with the Johnson administration.

Despite claims to the contrary, Cameron was seen as competent and still represents a compassionate strand of conservatism that proved electable in 2010. A major attack line for Labour is the Tory incompetence. Maybe Cameron can shore up the defenses and provide some comfort and familiarity for the public.

On the other hand, he is an alienating figure. “A few weeks ago, Rishi Sunak said David Cameron was part of a failed status quo; now he’s bringing him back as his life raft,” said Labour’s campaign strategist Pat McFadden. It also doesn’t say much for the other 350 elected Tory MPs passed over for the job.

Tom Peck, the sketch writer for the Independent, posted on X/Twitter, “At this point in the electoral cycle, what you definitely need is someone who led the campaign against Brexit, attacked you for cancelling HS2 is in favor of net zero targets you scrapped and is kind of embroiled in an ongoing criminal investigation.”

An academic study in the Consumer Research Journal called ‘Slowing down the good old days’ tells us how people’s patience diminishes when nostalgic reminiscence is overused. Is the world running out of patience with Sunak?

Because he examines everything through a spreadsheet, Sunak lacks humanity. ‘Just call me Dave,’ Cameron puts a little warmth and familiarity back in the Tory canon. I’ll let Groucho Marx have the last line. “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them... well, I have others.”

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