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25 May 2024

The curse of Rishi Sunak’s election campaign

It’s gonna be a long six weeks.

By Jonn Elledge

If we were absolutely honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit that D:Ream’s 1993 dance-pop hit “Things Can Only Get Better” is not, in fact, that good. It’s an odd track that does weird things with choirs and saxophones. The lyrics perfectly mimic the tone of a conversation with a stranger that feels profound in the chill-out room of a club two hours before dawn, but which turns out, in the cold light of day, to be completely and utterly meaningless. It may have certain positive associations for those of us of a certain age and/or political persuasion. But play it to someone who wasn’t there, and they’re probably going to wonder what the big deal is. 

They will, nonetheless, like the record substantially more than Rishi Sunak does: it has become the soundtrack to his own personal hell. The Prime Minister is, let’s not forget, a man successful enough to have gone through life taking for granted a fairly high level of respect, and rich enough to never know a single moment’s discomfort. Having reached the pinnacle of his second career, and become Britain’s first non-white prime minister at the youthful age of 42, he’s spent 17 months running from crisis to crisis, before, at one of the most important moments of his life, finding himself soaked to the skin and almost inaudible over the enemy’s theme song.  

The intended clip of the Prime Minister, listing his achievements before the door to No 10, thus turned out, in actuality, to be a perfect party-political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party. It could hardly have gone worse for Sunak if he’d been cursed by a witch. I imagine he’ll feel a rising sense of panic every time he hears that song for as long as he lives. 

Since then, the indignities have continued to pile up. That evening saw the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, earnestly explaining to Robert Peston that Keir Starmer’s decision to hold his own campaign launch inside only went to show he was not as hard as Rishi. (“We are much braver than they are about running headfirst into a wall,” is perhaps not, at this stage, the ideal campaign slogan for the Conservative Party.) Meanwhile, across town, security guards were throwing a Sky News crew out of the Tory campaign launch, even though they were broadcasting live, thus ensuring that there would be another clip more viral than the Prime Minister’s second, less-damp speech of the day. 

Thursday brought an agonising clip in which Rishi Sunak asked some Welsh voters if they were excited for the Euros, in which Wales is not playing; and a rather more flattering one, in which some people in high viz asked him why his campaign had the momentum of a runaway train (I paraphrase, but not by much), only for it to emerge the questions were asked by active Tories planted there by the party. It also brought some truly horrendous photographs of the Prime Minister looking – there’s no other way of putting this – as if he’d never previously encountered bread. Sunak did not need to be cursed by a witch. It’s quite enough to have been cursed by the Conservative Party, and his own staggering lack of political skill.  

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On the other side of the balance sheet, though, Nigel Farage has announced he will not be returning to British politics, because of his decision to spend more time with his lucrative US broadcasting career. That won’t kill off the threat of Reform as a repository for the “a pox on both your houses” voter, but it must surely help to limit the damage. Up in Scotland, newly installed SNP leader John Swinney’s campaign launch was smooth and reassuring, in exactly the way his predecessor, Humza Yousaf, had never managed to be in his life (although Swinney’s repeated claim to be the most popular politician in Scotland did make you long for the Earth to swallow both him and you). At risk of becoming the latest in a long line of English journalists to say something dumb about Scotland, that too feels like it could plausibly limit the size of Labour’s ambitions on 4 July. 

And the first poll to be conducted since the launch of the campaign, from More in Common – admittedly a pollster with a slight pro-Tory house effect – put the party on 27 per cent, to Labour’s 44 per cent. Repeated on election day, that would mean a historic wipeout for the governing party and a record-breaking Labour majority, while still also being a substantially more conservative result than many of the other polls out there in recent months have suggested. 

It’s been an awful start to Rishi Sunak’s campaign. Labour, by all accounts, are quietly confident. But there are reminders out there that, even after everything, there is a substantial bloc of the electorate who’d still rather have a Tory government than a Labour one. When a governing party calls an election as it’s facing its lowest ever polling, it’s at least possible that things really can only get better for them. Then again, on Friday morning, it turned out that someone on his campaign had sent Sunak to the shipyards that built the Titanic so that he could say that the plan was working, so it’s at least possible I’m over thinking this slightly.

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