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22 June 2023

Rishi Sunak needs to play political Bazball

To win over the country, the Prime Minister has to risk upsetting his party.

By David Gauke

For most right-minded people the focus of the last week has not been events in Westminster but the first Ashes Test at Edgbaston. After five exciting and evenly balanced days of cricket, Australia prevailed by two wickets on Tuesday evening (20 June).

There is now a debate about England’s tactics and whether too many risks were taken. Did they declare too early? Did the batters try to score too quickly? The more cautious Australians, after all, eventually won.

The case for the defence is that England – under their coach Brendan (“Baz”) McCullum and captain Ben Stokes – have adopted a new style of cricket, “Bazball”, that is all about banishing the fear of defeat to maximise the chances of winning. It is bold, risky and thrillingly entertaining.

The record – at least until this week – was impressive. Prior to McCullum and Stokes taking charge, England won only two out of 16 Tests, a run that included a 4-0 defeat in Australia. Under the new management, England have won ten out of 13. Yes, they lost this week and perhaps they could have avoided that but they have been victorious in matches that would not previously have been won. It would be no surprise if they were to come back strongly in the rest of the series.

I write all this not because I have decided that I have had enough of politics and now want to focus on cricket, tempting though that might be. Even those unfortunate people with no interest in Test cricket ought to find the McCullum/Stokes approach to risk intriguing.

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One person who might take note – and who, as it happens, does love Test cricket – is the Prime Minister. This week Rishi Sunak had a choice to make. He had an attacking option – one that might go badly wrong very quickly but which might ultimately increase his chances of an unlikely victory – and a more cautious, defensive option. He chose the latter.

I am referring, of course, to his approach to the Privileges Committee report on Boris Johnson. The report was damning of Johnson and put forward recommendations of sanctions but it was for the whole of the House of Commons to decide whether to endorse them. Rightly, this was a free vote in which MPs got to decide for themselves rather than be whipped by their parties. But close attention was always going to be on what Sunak did. His response was to do nothing.

In advance of the vote, he evaded questions as to his own thinking, stating that he did not want to influence people. (Influencing people, I would have thought, is a large part of the point of being prime minister.) On the evening itself, he was otherwise engaged.

[See also: PMQs: Rishi Sunak sees how it all might end]

The reason for ducking this matter is obvious. A clear and unambiguous position in support of the Privileges Committee would be seen by Johnson’s supporters in the parliamentary and voluntary parties, as well as some of his media cheerleaders, as unacceptably provocative. If Sunak had taken a strong position, the news story may have moved on to “Tory splits”, with Johnson and his supporters stung into further retaliation. Sunak could also be confident that he would not get much criticism for abstaining by those MPs who did support the Privileges Committee. They are generally sympathetic to him and, by temperament, do not like to make a fuss.

Party management, and the fear of exacerbating divisions, led to a defensive position. But let us imagine a strategy that is not driven by fear of failure but the hope of victory.

The first point to note is that victory – that is, a Tory victory at the next election – is highly unlikely. The Conservatives have been in office for 13 years; living standards are plummeting and the latest economic news – persistent inflation and yet higher interest rates – suggests that 2024 will not be a good year for an incumbent government to hold a general election. To win, Sunak is going to have to do something remarkable.

The second point to note is that the country appears to have resolved that it does not like the Tories but not necessarily that it likes Labour. The focus is not yet on Keir Starmer’s party but it will soon be proposing the most left-wing platform for any new government for 50 years. Much of that part of the electorate that may prove to be nervous about that – essentially, centrist voters – quite like Sunak, even if they do not think much of the Tories and certainly did not trust Johnson.

To win, Sunak has to appeal to them. But to appeal to them, he needs to risk upsetting that part of the Tory base that believes that Johnson was wronged. While he is at it, Sunak also needs to risk upsetting those who think that Liz Truss knew what she was doing with the economy. He needs to show that he is different from his predecessors.

The problem for Sunak is that every time he equivocates, every time he makes a defensive move to placate his Tory critics, he alienates these voters. What looks like sensible caution is just making it harder to win. A bolder approach might go horribly wrong but, given the position he is in, it is the only way he can win. It probably won’t be enough but it is time for the Prime Minister to play some Bazball.

[See also: Pledge tracker: Is Rishi Sunak starting to regret his promises?]

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