Sunak relies on Tory values – and football feelgood factor – for underdog triumph

As Starmer storms the opinion polls, incumbent PM hopes proven economic acumen will win him July 4 election

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak waited for one positive piece of economic news to drop – that inflation was down – before calling a general election. Getty
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For the past few months, Rishi Sunak and his inner circle of advisers have been homing in on the word “security”.

It has become their watchword for the general election campaign. As such, it covers a multitude of others, including “stability”, “safety”, “trust”, “responsible”, “defence”, and “law and order”.

These are the words that have come up time and time again in their private polling sessions with the critical swing voters – those who say they are undecided how they will vote.

Asked to describe the qualities of the Tory party in the focus groups, selecting cards on which is written a single word, these are the ones they pick.

That is why placards proclaiming “security”, “economic stability” and “immigration” are being flourished at Sunak rallies and will appear prominently in posters and advertisements.

Led by chief strategist Isaac Levido, the Tories are putting their faith in these themes to return Mr Sunak to Number 10. They play to the traditional divide between the two main parties.

The Conservatives are historically seen as better at managing the economy, trusted with other people’s money, behaving responsibly.

Labour, by contrast, is commonly regarded as standing for public spending, more caring and sharing, but economically not so sure.

It is a split that says, as well, the Tories are keener on the military and police, compared with Labour’s tendency towards pacifism and upholding the rights of the offender.

The Tories, too, are often portrayed as anti-immigrant.

It is no coincidence that if you cast your mind back over recent months, you will find these topics recurring. Mr Sunak and Mr Levido have been softening the nation up for a snap election.

Rishi Sunak through the years – in pictures

We have seen an out-of-the-blue boost for defence spending, while on immigration, we are told repeatedly it is not the fault of Mr Sunak that illegal immigrants have not been flown to Rwanda but leftie human rights lawyers and judges.

On the economy, Mr Sunak waited for one positive piece of news to drop – that inflation is down – before making his move.

He could have gone to the country later in the year but there was no way of telling what might happen between now and then. Here was something concrete he could latch on to.

With a fair wind, the Bank of England will be cutting interest rates when the vote occurs, emphasising that the economy is in capable, Tory hands.

Adding to that feel-good, they hope, will be England’s progress in the Euro 2024 football tournament.

Don’t underestimate this. England has a young, immensely talented, diverse team – one that if successful will paint the country in the same light.

It may seem trivial, but not for nothing is Mr Sunak already mentioning the football on the campaign trail.

They have based their campaign, too, on the belief that voting in a general election differs from local elections and by-elections.

In the main contest, voters are selecting the nation’s leader, the person who will be managing the money, the army, the one who takes us to war and who must keep the lights on.

It’s not a protest vote but an altogether more serious, grown-up affair.

This is where Mr Sunak and his advisers drew encouragement from the recent local elections.

Whereas everyone else focused on the scale of Tory losses, insiders say they determined that the Labour vote was “soft”, that those Tory defectors did not switch mainly to Labour. Many of them opted for alternative parties such as Reform.

In the national ballot, history suggests those lesser parties will fall by the wayside and voters will focus on what really matters, deciding between the Tories and Labour.

The local elections told Mr Levido and Co that the country was not enamoured with Labour; that the jury is firmly out where the party and its leader, Keir Starmer, is concerned.

If this was 1997, when Tony Blair swept to power, it would be game over for the Tories; there was no question back then who was going to win.

But it isn’t, and the Tories believe that despite a substantial lead in the opinion polls, Labour is far from home and dry, there is still all to play for, that they really can see a “narrow route to victory”.

If this was 1997, when Tony Blair swept to power, it would be game over for the Tories

It may seem perverse, Mr Sunak the incumbent, calling upon solid Tory values, among them faith in the status quo, when we’ve been subjected to years of Tory misrule and turmoil evidenced in the reigns of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

But his team see it as Mr Sunak saying he is different, he is not the same as his immediate predecessors.

We can expect to hear plenty of references to Mr Sunak not being like them. Weirdly, this will see both main parties stressing “change”. Indeed, that word is the prime Labour slogan.

Mr Sunak has no choice; he cannot profess to being the same as Mr Johnson and Ms Truss. By investing in him, we’re told, you’re plumping for someone much more serious and reliable.

There is, though, a difficulty here. Mr Starmer is widely regarded as dull and predictable – a cautious plodder, as opposed to a reckless Johnsonian charger.

On the very core of Mr Sunak’s messaging, Mr Starmer scores more highly – he is seen as a safer pair of hands than the Prime Minister.

“The choice at the next election is: who do you trust to keep you safe?” Mr Sunak asked in a keynote speech to the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, in the week before the election was called.

To his chagrin, plenty of people right now would say “Starmer”.

That’s why, strangely, Mr Sunak, the current occupier of Number 10, is presenting himself as the underdog candidate. The British always like an underdog.

While Mr Starmer is going down the safety-first route – as well as “change” he is stressing “an end to chaos” – the Sunak ruse and hope is to draw him out, to show that his polices are not properly costed, that yet again, Labour cannot be trusted.

In Scotland, too, there is a strange, blink-and-you-missed-it aspect to the messaging from the First Minister, John Swinney.

He is new to the top job, coming in on the end of a similarly turbulent period – first with the dethronement of Nicola Sturgeon, then the sudden resignation of Humza Yousaf.

Like the Tories, the SNP have been in charge for more than a decade; like the Tories, the new SNP chief is presenting himself as the trusted, safety-first choice.

Keir Starmer through the years - in pictures

Like Mr Starmer, he is pointing up “Tory chaos” – in his case, while conveniently forgetting the recent SNP chaos.

Again, he is the known selection – he was cabinet secretary for finance, effectively Scotland’s chancellor, under Alex Salmond and when she succeeded him, Ms Sturgeon.

Mr Sunak was chancellor, Mr Swinney was chancellor. They know the financial ropes; they have been there and they have done it.

Mr Starmer, by contrast, was all the while on the outside, protesting and complaining, not doing anything.

Best to stick with the tested and known or go with the untested and unknown? This is what we will be asked constantly over the coming weeks.

Published: May 29, 2024, 5:28 AM
Updated: June 17, 2024, 5:56 PM