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31 October 2023

Has Rishi Sunak already given up on the next election?

The Prime Minister has finally found his happy place: hobnobbing with entrepreneurs talking about technology.

By Freddie Hayward

The Prime Minister clearly didn’t watch Ron DeSantis’s glitch-ridden presidential launch on X, formerly known as Twitter, otherwise he wouldn’t have agreed to speak to Elon Musk on the platform following this week’s AI summit. The chat will crown what Rishi Sunak hopes will be a defining part of his premiership. This is his happy place: hobnobbing with entrepreneurs talking about technology unencumbered by the nuisance of politics. He even has a graphic that puts the X logo on No 10’s famous black door – which Downing Street asked to be shared with Westminster’s journalists.

The glee and drive with which the government has been preparing for this conference, to be attended by global political and industry leaders, shows it is top of the agenda for Sunak. It’s hard to argue that hosting a summit on AI will win votes. It helps the government look modern and forward-thinking. But Sunak’s decision to remind the public that AI could pose “an existential threat”, combined with what so far has looked like a light-touch approach to regulation (despite some confused messaging) is probably not a vote winner in a country gasping for security.

Instead, Sunak seems to have read the polls and realised he needs to achieve something in the short space of time he has left in No 10 that will be more memorable than leading the party to a disastrous defeat. And, crucially, something he can be personally proud of.

Viewed this way the incoherence of his policy reset makes more sense. Yes, it reflects the splits within the party and the desperate need to shift the political narrative, but it also reflects Sunak’s own priorities. This better explains his peculiar decision to ban smoking, which Sunak is rumoured to personally detest, for the next generation, not least because policies that are seemingly unconnected to boosting poll numbers – think of Theresa May’s decision to commit the UK to net zero by 2050 – can define their authors’ legacy. Catalysing international cooperation on AI is reminiscent of, if not comparable to, Gordon Brown’s coordination of the global response to the 2008 financial crisis. Whether Sunak will be successful in establishing a legacy for himself on AI is dependent on the outcome of this week’s conference. In any case, his entry in the history books looks like it will be modest.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

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[See also: The housing battle of Hastings]

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