Rishi Sunak's ‘battle of the wedges’ to hold power

British Prime Minister needs to take the fight to Labour by creating series of crux choices for voters

Rishi Sunak faces an immense fight to win the next election but creating 'wedge issues' will win back voters, analysts told The National. PA
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The fight for Rishi Sunak to remain in power has begun as he takes on Labour with a raft of popular policies likely to be announced at the Conservative Party conference next week.

A mountain climb lies ahead if he is to claw back the 20 points he lags behind the opposition in opinion polls, but party members and analysts have told The National that creating “wedge issues” could prove the path to victory.

The conference in Manchester is like to be the last before a general election next year, and could mark the starting point where the British prime minister unites a fractured party and draws in a disengaged public.

“He has got to create wedge issues,” said Dr Alan Mendoza, of the Henry Jackson Society think tank. “Then it might be possible to win but it won't happen if all the Conservatives are offering is the same as Labour. There has to be a fresh agenda, a common sense agenda.”

That wedge campaign now appears to be firmly under way with Downing Street’s strategists coming up with a series of popular proposals to win back voters, using the Conservative Party conference beginning on Sunday as their launch pad.

Wedge campaign

Already Mr Sunak has made a punchy reversal of Britain’s zero-carbon targets, arguing it was time for politicians to be brutally honest with the electorate.

That was followed in short order by Home Secretary Suella Braverman making a strong pitch at the United Nation to reform the 1951 Refugee Convention in order to restrict asylum seekers.

On Friday Mr Sunak then went for councils introducing 20mph (32kmh) speed limits – something he declared “a war on British motorists” – after Wales introduced the restriction in a widely unpopular move.

Those policies may already be having some cut-through. The National’s latest poll of Britons revealed on Thursday that support for Mr Sunak’s carbon measures had increased by a few percentage points.

“There is an opportunity now, to present common sense policies on a whole raft of issues,” said Dr Mendoza. “Otherwise after 14 years of Conservative rule, people will go: ‘Well, it's really not that much different [from Labour], let's try the other option.’”

The vertiginous path to victory is not without danger. More centrist Tories warn of moving too far to the right, dismaying key voters in southern England “blue wall” marginal seats who could desert them for the Liberal Democrats or Labour.

While some want to push Mr Sunak into harder populist policies, one Tory backbencher warned of “not listening too much to the extremist views on his far right”.

“You get a lot of very green conservatives who are going to be concerned about his environmental position,” he added.

Less tax

Traditionally the Conservatives have been the party of tax cuts, yet taxation stands at such a high level in Britain today that even Labour, which has historically raised tariffs, said they would not increase them.

There are clearly plans in train to address this, as tax cuts remain the most direct route to retaining power. The problem is that the Treasury needs every penny to keep the government afloat, making a reduction on income tax unlikely.

But there are other means, Tory insiders suggest, of putting pounds back in people’s wallets. The thresholds for higher bands of taxation are outdated and hurting those on lower incomes following the impact of high inflation, with those earning £37,700 going immediately from the 20 per cent to 40 per cent tax banding.

“The thresholds are ridiculous with the fiscal drag that's taken lots more people into higher tax bands,” said the back bench MP. “It's a telling moment when Labour can say they're not going to raise taxes, because they're already so high in this country.”

Another suggestion is a levy on plastics, soft drinks and the much-disliked inheritance tax or “death duties”.

“A plastics tax would help with people who are worried that he's gone all climate change sceptic,” said a Conservative Party official.

Rishi’s flair

Neither leader possesses the flair or charisma of Boris Johnson, both having more of a technocratic managerial style.

While Mr Sunak has immense intellect, he also has a sense of humour and “vitality” that needs a greater airing, the senior party official said.

“Rishi needs to show a little bit of flair because he is more vibrant than people give him credit for,” the source said. “His tagline could be ‘calm and authoritative’.”

The source said this would contrast with the “dull, lawyerly” style that former barrister Mr Starmer exudes.

There is also the option to simply sit back and allow Mr Starmer to trip up over policy issues such as suggesting much closer alignment to the European Union.

“One can argue that Starmer wants to take the UK back into the EU, which means he’s making the case for Sunak,” said the Conservative official. “You almost need to let Keir Starmer mess it up himself because the more Keir Starmer says the worse it comes across. All Sunak needs to do is appear calm and authoritative.”

No Blair

There is also an argument, the Tories believe, that there is not the nationwide enthusiasm for a new Labour government that there was for Tony Blair in 1997. That could still allow the Conservatives “to turn it around”.

“People are still worried about Labour thinking it’s not as user-friendly as they might suggest,” the Tory source said.

Being a multimillionaire, and with his wife in the same bracket, Mr Sunak should do more to connect with “how small people feel in the face of the giant multinationals” and for the Sunaks to insulate themselves from the accusation “they are part of that class”.

Ultimately it comes down to the wedge issues, Dr Mendoza insisted. “The Conservatives have got to show the improvements, that's number one. And number two, they’ve got to create those wedge issues and recapture the common sense policies that are supported by the silent majority of people in this country. Then they might turn it around.”

The back bench MP agreed with that sentiment, adding: “He’s got to make it clear that it's all going to be OK and this captain has taken over the flight and we're going to land safely.”

Updated: September 30, 2023, 5:00 AM