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Rishi Sunak isn’t popular enough to flog insurance

Plans to monetise Conservative members with a new app misunderstand what populists are really selling.

By Will Dunn

Rishi Sunak has become deeply unloved by the public, 71 per cent of whom hold an unfavourable view of the PM, taking his net favourability rating to a frosty minus 50.  But what if he could get you a voucher code for JD Sports?

That appears to be the plan. The Conservative Party discussed monetising its members through a new app that would share user data with “brand partners”, according to reporting by Tom Burgis and Henry Dyer in the Guardian.

Senior Conservatives were reportedly interested in sharing the party’s database of more than 170,000 members with the developers of the planned “True Blue” app. A pitch deck leaked to the newspaper suggests that the party faithful could be monetised at a rate of £128.50 per person through a “Conservatives Marketplace”. The document suggests the party planned to make commissions on deals, with major brands such as Vodafone, Tesco, Amazon and British Gas its main source of income. (None of the brands mentioned have said they had any involvement in the app.)

My favourite part of this pitch deck is a mock-up of a “Rishi Recommends” offer in which the Prime Minister’s favour is bestowed upon a 12 per cent discount on insurance. Perhaps this is what Sunak meant when he committed, last year, to “a wholly new kind of politics”: the kind of politics in which the highest office in the land is used to sell you cut-price merchandise.

A copyright message on the pitch deck appears to link it to a company called Addreax Group, which is owned by a Norwegian businessman and cryptocurrency investor called Christen Ager-Hanssen. Addreax’s website says the company uses an “AI Engine” to analyse people’s behaviour, and an “Eyeball Ecosystem” which “unleashes powerful Connectivity with eyeball engagement”, which sounds painful and frightening.

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But even web3-powered, NFT-backed nonsense like this would not have been enough to make the Conservatives’ planned “Digital Railway” (honestly, that’s what it’s called) work, because Sunak is the wrong kind of politician. To really cash in on your fans, you have to be a true populist.

In the US, Donald Trump has monetised his base in a much more aggressive and successful fashion. He has been able to do so because he has two things Sunak doesn’t: a large group of people who genuinely want to vote for him (and then never vote again), and a total absence of shame. That’s what allowed Trump to get up on stage at Sneaker Con in Philadelphia in February and begin hawking his own brand of trainers (the “Never Surrender” high-top) at $399 a pair. And this is what has allowed Trump Media to achieve a market capitalisation at time of writing of $6.31bn, which is more than major British employers such as Easyjet or Taylor Wimpey, despite Trump Media recording revenue of $4.1m in 2023, which is equivalent to one fairly average McDonald’s franchise restaurant.

Nigel Farage has also been successful at monetising his fans through his financial newsletter, Fortune and Freedom, and his media career. The most recent accounts for his company, Thorn in the Side Ltd (of which Farage is the sole employee and director), show net assets of £1.36m.

This really is a new kind of politics. It was once considered damaging for a politician to be caught with their hand in the till, but populism shrugs off such concerns. It’s able to do this because populists offer their fans something they want – in Trump’s case, a nationalist dictatorship – and their supporters don’t care how much the populists lie to get it. Fans are prepared to hand over money directly as an investment in their own political aims.

The big lie propounded by people who use terms such as “martech” is that technology can replicate this model for any politician. It can’t. Only a certain kind of politician can milk the rubes, because they are not really rubes: they know what they want, and they’re prepared to pay for it.

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