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21 November 2023

Rishi Sunak can’t escape the Tories’ recent history

The Prime Minister is fighting an election on 13 years, not 13 months.

By Freddie Hayward

Rishi Sunak delivered a speech yesterday packed with clues to No 10’s election strategy. The story of his time in office has been defined by what came before. Truss’s historic disaster made it necessary that Sunak distanced himself from her failure. And that’s what happened. The very quality Sunak wants to run on – fiscal competence – became the Tories’ greatest liability. Standing against her in the leadership contest did not suffice because he was still in the same party. He needed to make the distinction with her explicit straight away but hesitated so as to keep the Trussites onside. Unity was the watchword. The consequence is that Sunak must now fight an election against Labour and the memory of Liz Truss.

That was the task Sunak set himself at an inconspicuous but significant speech in north London yesterday. This was a bid, perhaps, to get credit for halving inflation after the announcement was eclipsed by Suella Braverman last week. No 10 seems committed to trudging on as factional skirmishes break out, unity collapses and the message is lost in the noise. Nonetheless, government figures finally recognise they are fighting an election after 13 years, and five prime ministers in office.

[Listen now: Is Britain really great? With Armando Iannucci]

He’s not Rachel Reeves or Liz Truss, the Prime Minister was at pains to make clear. Condemnations of Labour were paired with reminders that Truss pursued unfunded tax cuts. They are both profligate with public money, the PM implied. “[Labour’s plan for green growth] makes the same economic mistake as last year’s mini-Budget,” he insisted. This was a more bullish string of attacks against Labour, which ran along the lines of: Labour will borrow £28bn a year for its green prosperity plan, which in turn means it cannot cut taxes. Therefore, if you want lower taxes in this cost-of-living crisis, vote Tory.

Incoherence remains, of course. “They could have gone for competence but instead we’ve got this erratic swinging from one message to another,” as one shadow cabinet minister put it to me last night. The “I’m not the past” message is fatally undermined by the peach-faced presence of Lord Cameron around the cabinet table. It doesn’t help that Sunak professes to be a tax-cutting politician while the tax burden is at a 70-year high, and he extols the private sector while the state has grown into a flabby mess.

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A more fundamental problem is whether the public even wants a tax-cutting, free-enterprise Thatcherite fanboy whose mission is to shrink the state. YouGov has asked people what they would want the government to spend any extra money on and 44 per cent said increased public spending while 29 per cent said cutting taxes. Labour’s challenge then is to persuade voters that investment rather than tax cuts is the way forward. My hunch is the party will find more fertile ground in broken Britain than the Prime Minister’s entrepreneurial dream – even if he is finally casting off his Truss-shaped shackles.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: The myth of “Thatcherite” tax cuts]

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