New Times,
New Thinking.

Not even Rishi Sunak believes he will enact the Tory manifesto

The Prime Minister’s pitch felt like the final act of 14 years of Conservative government.

By Rachel Cunliffe

One must be careful with location metaphors in an election campaign.

So far, Rishi Sunak has already given us a botched chat with the punters in a brewery and a press conference on the pier from which the Titanic set sail – to say nothing of his flight from the D-Day beaches last week.

Silverstone Formula 1 race track was the setting chosen for the launch of the Conservative Party manifesto today. It was symbolic, the Prime Minister said, of the fact that the UK economy had “turned a corner”. But an equally apt analogy is that the wheels have come off.

The vast conference space, where a particularly dire episode of The Apprentice had been shot shortly before Sunak took the reins of the Tory party, did not offer the most auspicious atmosphere. As journalists filed into the hall, a space reminiscent of an aircraft hangar and barely two-thirds full, party activists were hurriedly disassembling rows of empty chairs. Perhaps not enough supporters had turned up – or maybe they’d been tempted away by reports that Brad Pitt was filming just outside.

Pitt wasn’t the only superstar threatening to overshadow Sunak before the event even kicked off. Ben Houchen, the newly re-elected mayor of Tees Valley and possibly the only popular Conservative politician in the country, opened proceedings with a gloriously positive speech that mostly focused on his local patch and warned of “Armageddon” if Labour win. But Sunak did eventually get a shout-out. “He doesn’t stop halfway,” was Houchen’s glowing endorsement of the Prime Minister. Given the way this campaign has been going, a growing number of Tories are starting to wish he had.

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Then came a much-hyped video shot at the racecourse. A tantalising attempt was made in the first five seconds to compare Sunak – or possibly the Tories in general, it was unclear – to the heat, speed and excitement of Formula 1 racing, but whoever directed soon gave up and reverted to tried and tested footage of cabinet ministers waving and shaking hands. “Rishi Sunak” read the text at the end – a callback to the Covid-era Treasury announcements signed “Rishi” in looping handwriting, back when the then-chancellor was popular.

The manifesto subsequently presented is a last-ditch effort from a PM spiralling in the polls to recover a fraction of that elusive popularity. But the measures contained within it, cheerily reeled off one after the other by the man himself, were written as though under the assumption that popularity never went away. Despite banners around the hall heralding “Bold Action”, “more of the same” is a better description. Very little in its 76 pages has not been announced or even tried by Sunak before, with dubious results. Another 2p cut in National Insurance, after the past two, in the Autumn Statement in November and Budget in March, failed to move the polling dial in any way. An emphasis on the Rwanda plan to tackle illegal immigration, whose unworkability was a key factor in the election being called before a single flight has taken off. The promise of more tax cuts to come, when the public finances are so shot that the chair of the (Conservative-founded) Office for Budget Responsibility has said the government’s post-2025 spending plans are “worse than fiction”.

In a way, so is the entirety of this manifesto. No one here, not even Sunak, genuinely believes he will be in Downing Street on July 5 to enact any of it. As journalists quizzed Conservative spokespeople on the inconsistencies of the document (apparently up to 100,000 unprocessed Channel migrants could be sent to Rwanda, despite the Rwanda government suggesting it would only take a few hundred), the lack of detail became more and more apparent.

Small wonder, then, that there are already grumblings about why it wasn’t bolder. If you’re writing cheques you know you’ll never have to actually cash, why not go for broke? The right of the party wanted a commitment to leave the ECHR, or at the very least hold a referendum on it to stave off the threat of Nigel Farage and Reform. Economic liberals might have hoped for something more ambitious on tax cuts had all hope not seeped out of that wing of the party long ago. As for something, anything, to offer young people, that ship sailed (from the Titanic Quarter) with the National Service pledge on day three of the campaign.

In terms of a narrative, a theme, a grand vision tying it all together, here again Sunak came up short. The best pitch he could muster was to urge people not to hand a “blank cheque” to Keir Starmer. According to campaign strategists on the ground, that is apparently the only message that is even remotely resonating on the doorstep right now: disillusioned former Tories are only tempted to vote for the party once they’ve been assured the Conservatives won’t actually win and are just deciding the scale of the Labour majority.

As set-piece political events go, the sense of anti-climax in the cavernous hall was palpable. It felt as though we were witnessing not the launch of a manifesto, but 14 years of Conservative government underwhelmingly coming to an end.

Even Sunak himself seemed to sense it, his peppy school prefect persona fraying at the edges. “Labour wants to pretend that we have simply not achieved anything,” he griped towards the end – unaware, perhaps, that at that very moment the “Achievements” page of the Conservative Party website was down. Sometimes the metaphors write themselves.

[See also: Confronting the new Europe]

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