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30 June 2024

The Unthinkable: how Rishi Sunak accidentally won the 2024 general election

A short story in which the PM, to his great surprise, discovers a new purpose.

By Will Dunn

Ask anyone who remembers the night of the 2024 general election and they’ll describe a similar scene. Rooms full of people watching monitors, white wine on a hot night. Everyone knew what would happen. And then that moment when the opinion poll came in and everyone felt the same thing: the air departing the room, the sudden vacuum, a silence where a cheer should have been. For several minutes no-one in Britain knew what to say.

Of course the people on the TV screens had to find something to say, so they read out the numbers again and people squinted at them and puffed their cheeks and – oh, this is the other thing everyone remembers – Sir John Curtice called it a “a f***ing p***-take”, threw his lapel microphone on the desk and walked off the BBC News set.

For a few hours the numbers were generally agreed to have been the work of Russian hackers. Obviously they were not real. Downing Street itself released a statement, in the early hours of Friday morning, that the National Cyber Security Centre was involved. But the counts came in from across the country and every local news team found a returning officer who could swear to the integrity of their team and it began to look very much as if the Russians were not involved.

The same picture ran on a few front pages the next day: the special advisor, smoking, unkempt, red-eyed, watching the delivery driver as he loaded the unopened crates of Nyetimber back into his van outside the Labour headquarters in Southwark. It became a meme, obviously.

The PM appeared outside Number Ten the next day, hair unkempt after the hastily arranged helicopter flight back from Yorkshire. No-one had thought to tidy him up, no speech had been written. He was ashen, barely audible over the baying of the crowd beyond the gates. He looked, it was generally agreed, as if he’d just rung the nation’s collective doorbell to apologise for having run over the nation’s dog.

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Watch the background from that speech; his wife won’t look in his direction. In the weeks to come the details would leak. The exclusive school in California at which the girls were already enrolled – no national service for them – and the house they had already bought in Montecito. They had never intended to remain in the real world, but the real world had other ideas. The people of Britain were not finished with Rishi Sunak.

In the following days it would become clear what had happened. This was a conspiracy hatched not in the Kremlin but in SW1. Every newspaper columnist had agreed that the last-ditch electoral pact with Reform had been the final humiliation; no party that actually intended to govern would throw in its lot with the swivel-eyed loons. Cleverly and his pals said it was unconscionable, they would resign the moment the election was over.

But then the election was over, and they mostly stayed put. The time wasn’t right, the markets were in a state, it would be irresponsible to leave now. Like the Remoanist defectors before them, these opportunists failed to understand the tides that shifted beneath them. There was a man who could have explained it to them, but they had long since decided never to listen to him.

As Farage would later write in his best-selling (and in places, potentially true) account of the period, he began selling the idea to Rishi in mid-June,  when the polls began to be accompanied by headlines that used words like “wipeout” and “Armageddon”. They met in a room above Tufton Street, the office of a mutual friend.

This was, he told Sunak, very much an Elon Musk-type situation. Like Musk, Farage had built up a large amount of background equity and now he was preparing to seize control of the platform. He was already talking about a “hostile takeover” of the Conservative Party on TV.

He also believed that the party was, in the argot of the investor, underpriced. Even facing superdefeat (Sunak winced; his failure was so complete that they’d had to coin a new phrase to describe it) the Conservatives and Reform could collectively expect to gain about 35 per cent of the popular vote. Labour might get 40. With tactical voting this could be turned into a very different outcome to the one the polls predicted.

The key was to produce a new narrative to sell to a bored and frustrated electorate. An alliance could reframe both parties in the minds of voters as potential winners.

Farage also knew that while the choice of a summer election was a disastrous error on Sunak’s part, it was an opportunity for Reform. He had intelligence – and here the whispers of Russian involvement sounded more convincing – that large numbers of migrants had been waiting on the coast of northern France for better weather. In late June, the sun came out, the sea calmed. There were several days on which more than a thousand illegal migrants crossed the Channel.

By polling day Farage had nine million votes to lend the Conservatives. All he needed to do, he told Sunak, was to tell his people that a Tory vote and a Reform vote were now effectively the same thing. A website would tell them how to maximise their tactical votes to gain seats, to heal the divisions in the right-wing vote and bring the coalition to power.

The website would never be ready in time, Sunak told him. Farage took out his phone. It was already done, it had been tested, it worked perfectly. A simple interface, the teal and the blue sitting side by side. There was even an app. A nice businessman friend made sure the tech was rock solid. After he’d gone, Sunak checked with GCHQ: the website had been registered seven months earlier, apparently, by a shell company in Thailand.

During those stifling evenings on Tufton Street, the two men agreed the deal that would propel Farage into one of the great offices of state, and eventually into the leadership of the party that had once written him off as a fruitcake. They bonded during their long conversations; aides were sent out to buy more rosé for Nigel, another can of Coke for Rishi.

In the double-breasted blazer he wore to those meetings, Nigel kept a book he had stolen from school more than 40 years earlier. It was one of the few things from his time at Dulwich College he had not ignored or forgotten. He spotted it one afternoon in the library, to which he retreated on Wednesday afternoons to avoid conscription into rugby or swimming. The heavy gothic typeface gave off a whiff of naughty politics he found irresistible.

An amulet of sorts, he kept it about his person for big speeches, TV appearances, votes. Things went wrong when he forgot it.

It was a slim volume, less than 150 pages: The Life of Thyl Ulenspiegel. The story was based on medieval German folk tales about an itinerant prankster who lived in Lower Saxony. Every tale involves someone with a position (an innkeeper, a noblewoman) being brought down a peg by the fool. As a boy Farage simply enjoyed the scatological humour (Ulenspiegel typically exposes hypocrisy using farts, or by defecating on something). As a politician he began to understand their importance.

A modern democracy, he realised, is not so different from feudal Germany. Society is run by people generally agreed to be better. Today that does not mean higher-born (although that still counts) but higher-qualified: hard-working, intelligent Oxbridge graduates who argue well for sensible policies. For the average person this class is sufficiently remote and inaccessible that it may as well be the medieval nobility.

As in the feudal world, everyone outside the ruling class understands that it is all a big scam, and that nothing these well-intentioned and clever people can say will really protect them from the predatory interests that rinse every spare penny from them while making their work ever more humiliating and precarious. In an unfair and dishonest world, vulgarity is an honest response. A politician who can capture this – a likeable bastard, a cartoon sleazeball, a popular fool – can turn this to his advantage.

This was the deep truth that Farage understood about the voting public, which almost no-one else seemed to grasp. Better than anyone else in Britain, he understood the power of being hated. The more derision and contempt the political class had for him, the more milkshakes thrown his way by right-thinking people, the more powerful he could become.

It was this that allowed him to see what every pollster missed: that the British public wanted to keep their Prime Minister, not because they liked him or thought he had done a good job, but because they despised him.

Of course, they didn’t win win. They scraped together the slimmest of technical victories from a grudging minority, but that is how things are done under Britain’s electoral system. Labour’s confidence had been grossly overstated, large chunks of its leftward flank eaten into by the Green Party’s otherwise pointless radicalism. The left dissolved at once into its default state of bitter internal warfare. Sunak and Farage formed a new government. The removal vans were quietly readmitted to Downing Street, the Noguchi furniture unpacked.

Rishi and his new Home Secretary continued to meet. Farage was the only person who could explain to the PM what had happened. On their first meeting Nigel helped himself to one of the PM’s Cokes – an eyebrow lifted at the three cans already emptied – and he gave his new boss the truth.  

The public had enjoyed Sunak’s humiliation too much to let him go. Watching the smug private-school banker whimpering in the rain, seeing him flounder in debates, laughing at the endless scandals – it had all been deeply cathartic. For a nation that had just endured the steepest decline in the standard of living for half a century, not to mention having a shocker in the Euros, it was very pleasant to switch on the TV and see the Prime Minister being made to wear his shameful record. The last thing they wanted was to let him swan off to California; that trick had already been pulled.

The office of Prime Minister had been shown to serve no real purpose, so the People made it useful. Its principal function had become a social pressure valve, like the pillory into which criminals were chained, in centuries past, to be pelted with insults and rubbish. The point of the pillory and the stocks was not that they prevented crime, but that they made people feel better about being the victims of crime.

The pollsters and the columnists did their best to explain the election as a confluence of factors – the boats, the weather, the resurgent European right, the permacrisis. They held forth endlessly on the decline of the liberal consensus. Reality was simpler and more visceral: after 14 years of being robbed and brutalised, the People were too angry for change. All they wanted was revenge.

Among Nigel’s terms for the deal were that Rishi stay in place for at least a couple of years. He would later describe these as the longest years of his political career. The fiscal traps he and Jeremy had laid for Labour smashed into his own ankles. Every bankrupt council, every prison riot, every crumbling hospital remained very much his fault. His principal functions were to be snubbed at international gatherings and to endure a weekly mauling in the House by Rayner. Meanwhile, Nigel – whom he asked repeatedly to sit with his own MPs, and who always refused – sat at his side, smiled warmly, and waited for the inevitable.

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