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Why things can only get wetter for Rishi Sunak


By Alastair Duncan, Co-founder

May 23, 2024 | 7 min read

Alastair Duncan, host of Politics for Drummies, reflects on the optics of Rishi Sunak’s general election announcement and explains why it was a damp squib.

Rishi in rain

Timing, as they say in comedy, is everything. But Rishi Sunak’s unexpected announcement of the July election yesterday proved to be an actual comedy of errors.

It was pouring (“Live from Drowning Street”). The protester blasting Labour’s 1997 election-winning tune Things Can Only Get Better drowned out the speech at times. It felt more like a handover to Keir Starmer and Labour, mentioned several times by name, than the structured attempt it was meant to be at positioning the contest as a personal one between Sunak, who gave you money during Covid, versus Starmer who, er, wasn’t in power then and “has no plan.”

In true British election fashion, Count Binface immediately reposted his July 4 Bindependence Day graphics, as WhatsApp messages from Tory MPs pinged around Westminster, with “flabbergasted,” “madness,” and “get it over before the holidays” leaking left, right, and center.

Why have they called it now?

The Prime Minister alone controls election timing in cahoots with his closest advisors. What I’ve gleaned is three factors tipped Sunak over the edge:

  • The feeling that there is a good economic story to tell right now with inflation reduction.

  • Concern that the public has stopped listening so dragging it out is risky.

  • Things just keep going wrong. It simply won’t get any better over the summer.

There’s also a sharp sting for Labour’s funding: the Labour party raises most of its campaign funds from the party conference (in October), so they will have less money to spend right now. From a human perspective, postponing the election any further seemed the right thing to do as over a hundred MPs have already said they aren’t going to stand in the election and no doubt everyone would love a summer holiday. I won’t dwell on the rumor of a new leadership contest prompted by whispers of an election announcement just before the election was announced…

So, how will the campaign take shape?

For a start, personalizing the contest between Keir and Rishi is not a bad strategy for the Conservatives. The public’s poor perception of Starmer’s leadership, untried and untested on matters of state, is a Labour weakness.

Sunak wants people to remember the positive effect of his Covid giveaway, so much so he mentioned it in the announcement. Incumbency does give him a position of relative strength when it comes to defense issues, Ukraine, and international relations. These will be his “power” themes. We’ve heard him repeat endlessly five promises: halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut NHS waiting lists, and stop small boats. Expect more of the same.

On a character level, despite his considerable personal wealth, he presents such a different technocratic image that people find him hard to place compared to the Old Etonian mold of Cameron or the boisterous Boris. It remains surprising how many people believe Starmer to be more posh than Rishi because of his knighthood.

There isn’t much else to stand Sunak up. His own net popularity rating (Ipsos -59) as of April 2024 is worse than Starmer’s (Ipsos -31), level with the all-time record low for a Prime Minister set by John Major in August 1994. People feel he is out of touch.

On the big issues, the Tories are overwhelmingly underwhelming in all the polls. The cost of living crisis is real for everyone. Prices are 20% higher than in 2021. Gestures such as bringing inflation down are not seen as wins for the public, who have felt the impact of extreme inflation in energy bills and food. And the blame for that is squarely set at the door of the Conservatives. People really have had enough. Expect plenty of “culture war” content and pictures of life jackets to signify illegal migration instead.

To summarize the conservative election campaign: “If people elect a Labour government, you’ll get a Labour government, with no plan. We have a plan.”

Morgan McSweeney, the Labour campaign organizer, has been preparing for this moment for some time. Are they ready? In a nutshell, yes.

The timing of Keir Starmer’s Pledge Card announcement last week now seems a masterstroke of getting one’s retaliation in first. In a curiously childish turn of phrase, “My First Steps for Change” outlined the six topics Labour will focus on: the economy, NHS waiting times, a new Border Security Force, energy, antisocial behavior, and 6,500 more teachers. We will hear more “fully costed” plans in the coming weeks.

Labour has been very inventive with its preliminary campaigning. It will not be shy in pointing out Tory failings. From releasing Netflix-style videos “Conflix – Chaos and Decline” castigating 14 years of Tory government to creating multiple layers for local campaigning templates. They could do with a better QR code though, these things should be cleverly designed.

Over the next six weeks, we’ll hear more as the manifestos are published. But I’d like to flag a few things to watch out for that we’ll be following eagerly in The Drum and on the Politics for Drummies podcast.

  • I expect to see a boost for the Tories on the economy as they will claim they can be trusted more than Keir Starmer, but this will not be enough to overcome the disastrous Liz Truss effect.

  • More MPs will stand down in a flurry of letters in the next few weeks.

  • It’ll get nasty. There will be no holding back on the personal attacks in this election.

  • Will spin win? There is no regulation over what you can say in an election, so be vigilant for truth stretching.

  • I predict unprecedented use of the word unprecedented. Labour needs a bigger vote swing than Tony Blair achieved in 1997 to gain the majority David Cameron won in 2015. Then again, no party has ever won five elections in a row, which Sunak has to do.

  • There will be a flood of parody videos; few will actually be funny and many will be, well, just cruel parody.

  • Did I mention AI? We have a special podcast on that coming up with Amil Khan from Valent Projects, who tracks the techniques of fake election information that are increasingly used in electioneering.

  • In Scotland, the “under new management” SNP are expected to have a bruising time in the face of an energized Labour Party, as pointed out by the SNP MP for Perth Pete Wishart on the Politics for Drummies podcast.

  • Expect much more from the Liberal Democrats, who will probably take about 40 seats in places where Labour have no chance and there isn’t an appetite to vote Tory.

  • The Greens will gain some disaffected Labour voters who don’t like centrist dads.

  • Reform seats will be inversely proportional to Richard Tice’s TV appearances, unless Nigel Farage stands.

To lead you have to win, and before you can win, you have to lead. Good luck to all the players.

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