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8 January 2024

The problem with Rishi Sunak’s new election strategy

To many voters, “going back to square one” will sound appealing given the state of the country.

By Rachel Cunliffe

There’s a political adage in which there are, essentially, only three election slogans: Time for Change, Let Us Finish the Job, and Don’t Let the Other Lot Screw It Up. These apply to a greater or lesser extent whatever the election, but they feel particularly pertinent now, as Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer prepare for the campaign that will define 2024.

“Let Us Finish the Job” was very much the theme of Sunak’s rhetoric today (8 January). During a speech and Q&A event in Accrington, Lancashire (a former Red Wall seat won by the Tories in 2019 and now swinging back to Labour), the Prime Minister set out his rallying cry for this election year: “Stick with the plan that is starting to deliver the long-term change our country needs, or go back to square one with the Labour Party.”

Sunak was bubbling with his usual schoolboy-like energy. Freed from the shackles of a suit jacket, he bobbed backwards and forwards, gesticulating emphatically as he told assembled locals and journalists of the “progress” he had made on the five priorities he set out at the start of last year.

That assessment is very much up for debate. The only one of the five Sunak actually managed to meet in 2023 was halving inflation (now 3.9 per cent) – which still remains far higher than the Bank England’s target rate (2 per cent), and is largely determined by factors outside of the government’s control. Of the other four, NHS waiting lists have grown, the economy has stagnated, debt has risen, and the boats have not been stopped (with Sunak’s Rwanda bill facing considerable legal and political challenges). 

Governments generally have a slight advantage when heading into elections, partly because they can point to actual achievements in office while the opposition can only make vague promises, but also because most voters are naturally risk-averse. The “better the devil you know” element gives incumbent parties the edge – the reason the “Let Us Finish the Job” narrative is often effective is it doesn’t ask people to gamble on unknowns. The message Sunak is trying to convey this year – that the progress he has made is real but vulnerable – should be a powerful one. After the political and economic turmoil of recent years, it shouldn’t be too hard to convince voters that they are better off playing it safe.

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Unfortunately for Sunak, the Tory party, though incumbent, is no longer considered the low-risk option. You can blame Liz Truss for that, or Boris Johnson, or even the austerity regime imposed by David Cameron and George Osborne 13 years ago, the long-term damage of which is becoming steadily more apparent through the UK’s crumbling infrastructure and public services.

Sunak seemed to briefly realise this in one of his many resets, attempting to distance himself from his predecessors by pitching himself as the change candidate at the Conservative Party conference last autumn. “Time for Change” proved an effective election message for Johnson in 2019, after all. But Sunak failed to offer an attractive vision of change – cuts to HS2, a ban on smoking, and maths until the age of 18 enthused few – and the return to “Let Us Finish the Job” rings hollow. If October-Sunak didn’t think the job had been done properly, why should voters trust January-Sunak now?

It’s easy to see what the Prime Minister is trying to convey with the “stick with us or go back to square one” line he used multiple times today. It’s probably the most compelling message the Conservatives have (expect to hear variations repeated by ministers ad nauseum). But given the myriad crises facing the Tories and Britain, square one doesn’t feel like a threat right now. In fact, it looks rather appealing.

[See also: Why tax cuts won’t improve Sunak’s polling]

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