New Times,
New Thinking.

Tory disunity is poisoning Rishi Sunak’s campaign

The Conservatives resemble a party desperate to leave government.

By Freddie Hayward

Politics is different at elections because people start to listen. That Starmer grew up in a pebble-dashed semi has been his mantra for a while. But most voters won’t have memorised his childhood living arrangements, or even watched his daytime speeches. That’s why Starmer used his first major campaign speech yesterday to push home the lines many in Westminster will have grown tired of.

The message was that he will restore people’s trust in politics by prioritising public service. He talked about his childhood in Oxted, a place, he said, that was “about as English as it gets… [a] mix of Victorian red bricks and pebble-dashed semis while all around you have rolling pastures and the beautiful chalk hills of the North Downs.”

Nostalgia? Sure, not least in the literal sense of the term. But he was also saying: “look, I can talk about Englishness, define it and be proud of it”. The speech was an opening salvo designed to put the case for Starmer the man – the patriot who will prioritise public service over party politics. Whether voters believe him or not is a different question to whether this is a better strategy than the Tories’.

The Conservatives, in contrast, say Starmer is slow, tired, lethargic and old. Briefings over the weekend, which Sunak has distanced himself from, have labelled Starmer “sleepy Keir”. Sunak, a sprightly 44, is indeed nearly 20 years younger than the Labour leader. The question is why the Tories think this is a good attack. “Sleepy Keir” is a decent moniker for the wrong election. Not up working at 6am? Neither is most of the country. Since when was it cool in Britain to show off about working hard? This is not America. If the Tories want to fight the campaign in the school ground they should realise no one likes a try-hard.

Sunak is not Trump, a bully par excellence. Trump’s jibes worked in 2016 because they exposed the hubris of the Republican Party’s stale establishment. He made them look self-possessed and disingenuous. But Sunak is the establishment. His party has been in power for 14 years.

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Then there is the fact many people might actually want an older guy with more experience to steer the leaking British ship through the gathering storm. The Tories have belatedly clocked the general mood in the country: people are sick of the instability, the directionless government and the constant personnel change. Sunak’s opening gambit in the rain was a pitch to be the people’s protector, the furlough-provider who will take care of their worries. The problem is that many people place the blame for that insecurity at the Tories’ feet. As ever, Sunak is caught in a bind between promising change and defending his party’s record.

But the Tories have deeper problems than mid-rate trash talk. Every announcement Sunak makes is bad-mouthed by his own colleagues. We are five days in. And yet, disunity breaks each Tory wave of attack. There is a bitterness to how Conservative MPs have reacted to the election that reflects a party desperate to leave government. It’s now known that veterans minister Johnny Mercer, who only last week was privately complaining about Sunak’s media performances, said national service was a bad idea a week before the election was called. 

Meanwhile, Steve Baker, a Tory Brexit veteran, is currently on a pre-booked holiday in Greece because, he said, the PM assured the party the election would be later in the year. “I’ve chosen to do my campaign work in Greece,” he said, in a quote for the ages. And now, the retiring Tory MP for Telford, Lucy Allan, has backed her local Reform candidate. When the Conservatives tried to expel her, she said she had already left. Sunak’s own MPs would rather vote for the opposition.

Some commentary over the weekend recommended that the Tories sit back and let Labour succumb to scrutiny. If only they could. In the same way that Sunak could not grip the narrative in government, he can’t in the campaign. The disunity seeded over the past few years is now blooming into a poisonous ivy.

At this rate, Starmer might be able to get away with spending the next six weeks preaching about pebble-dashed semis.

[See also: Is Labour ready when it comes to foreign policy?]

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