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29 November 2022

Rishi Sunak needs more than a good tone to beat Labour

The government has made the right noises on Europe and strikes, but that won’t hide it’s lack of substance for long.

By Freddie Hayward

So much of Rishi Sunak’s time in No 10 has been about tone. His government oozes soothing, technocratic competence that Liz Truss could never muster. The reasoning is simple: you usually get away with a lot more if your government is presented well. Take these three examples.

First, China. Sunak donned a white tie to deliver his first major foreign policy speech as Prime Minister last night at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. He said his approach would be “robust pragmatism”. In the words of the BBC’s political editor, Chris Mason: “What does that mean? It’s not immediately obvious to be honest…” Is it that the government will be both robust and pragmatic towards China, or so pragmatic that they are robustly pragmatic?

What seems to be going on is that Sunak has abandoned his foray into bombastic sinoscepticism during the Tory leadership campaign and reverted to the more accommodating position he took as chancellor – with the “robust” thrown in to appease his critics.

But they aren’t sold. Iain Duncan Smith ridiculed the phrase as a “contradiction in terms” and called on Sunak to label China a “systemic threat”. Smith is well known for his hard line on China, but his comments portend another scuffle between the government and its back benches.

Second, Europe. From Steve Baker, a Northern Ireland minister, apologising for Ireland’s interests being disrespected during Brexit, to James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, welcoming a “better atmosphere” in negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol of the withdrawal agreement, the government has adopted a conciliatory tone. It is still, however, pushing a bill through parliament which would allow it to unilaterally override the Protocol.

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Third, strikes. Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary and a deft media operator, has dropped the more accusatory language of his predecessor in negotiations over industrial action on the railways. Mick Lynch, the leader of the RMT union, said a meeting on Friday was “positive”, while Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, welcomed a “change in tone” from the government.

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Nonetheless, a recent YouGov poll for the Times found that Labour had a 20 percentage point lead on which party voters thought would better handle the strikes. That suggests Keir Starmer’s hands-off approach to the industrial action is working. Or simply that people are so fed up with the government that they’d prefer the other guy.

And that’s the snag. For all the style, the fundamental problems facing the government remain. Growing NHS backlogs. Rising energy prices. The deepening recession. Public sector budgets unable to absorb real-terms pay increases.

That’s not to say that tone isn’t important. The three examples above are fundamentally about negotiation, and negotiation requires trust and political will. The EU and UK have resumed talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol for the first time since February, for instance. But you want substance as well as rhetoric. Sunak will need more than a fresh tone to turn around the government’s fortunes.

[See also: “You don’t trash your neighbours”: David Lammy on global Britain under Labour]

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.