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20 March 2024

Among Conservatives, the mood has never been so grim

Sunak’s team can’t get themselves heard, and most of what they say vanishes forever.

By Andrew Marr

Rishi Sunak is quite right: none of us knows the future. But when he predicts that Britain will “bounce back this year” and “there is a real sense that the economy is turning a corner”, he has reasons for that optimism. Inflation is falling; interest rates will follow. Business confidence is good and rising. There’s some blue in those patchy skies.

There’s some slate-coloured nimbostratus too. We will get into that. But meanwhile, here is some further news that may come as a surprise, certainly to anybody who is a mere headline-skimmer. The Conservative government led by Mr Sunak has been doing some useful things. I won’t list them all. I’m not paid to do that.

They would include the Budget extension of full expensing, which will boost investment; tax relief for the arts, including TV and film-making, also in the Budget; moves to require more local consultation ahead of low-traffic neighbourhood schemes, which are democratically virtuous; a much-needed £60m initiative on training young apprentices; and an urgent £245m package to support Ukraine’s badly diminished artillery supplies.

These are examples of the kind of necessary background chuntering all governments should be getting on with. And yet, the impression is that the government is in crisis. So, let’s turn to the politics, because as the country bounces back, its people have concluded, even at a subliminal level, that Sunak’s Conservatives are finished – done, history. To pursue a currently popular analogy, what I’ve listed above is all just the preparation of carrots for the evening steerage stew, the brushing of clothes and the tuning of violins during the early evening of 14 April 1912 on the RMS Titanic. A lot of stuff is going on, but somehow it isn’t the point.

That friendly bobbing iceberg awaits. The Prime Minister has revealed that his rendezvous with it will not take place on 2 May. Even in Downing Street, however, they doubt whether the Conservative Party can hold together until November.

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There is no evidence as yet that Penny Mordaunt, the current Leader of the House, would be any good as prime minister. She carries a sword very well, is an excellent attacker of Labour and rouses corduroyed Conservative gentleman of a certain age to the point where they might consider not voting for Richard Tice’s Reform UK – but the plotters don’t have the numbers and it’s all nonsense. It’s cribbage on the upper deck ahead of the disaster.

The person to blame, however, is the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. This diligent, intelligent man, diving ever more deeply into spreadsheets and departmental papers in the hope of uncovering elusive answers to his continued unpopularity, is simply not good enough at politics.

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What does it mean to be “not good at politics”? It means not being heard. In a democracy, the leader must be listened to; unless you are noticed, unless you set the agenda and get people talking about what you want them to talk about, you cannot lead. Sunak and his government cannot get themselves heard. Most of what they say, the carefully crafted social media messages, the speeches, all the announcements to parliament… all disappear into a kind of grey porridge of indifference – or, indeed, an icy sea – and vanish forever.

It may simply be that after the endless Tory feuding over Brexit and the pandemic,  the way ill-disciplined ministers tried to interfere in our lives, the slowly crushing effects of austerity and yet more leadership feuding followed by the brief Truss madness, the public started to put its fingers in its ears and go “la-la-la” to any further Tory messaging. They’d had it, turned their backs, end of.

Illustration by Mona Eing & Michael Meissner

Perhaps at some point in the future, historians will pinpoint the week, day or even the exact hour at which Britain stopped listening. To be honest, I suspect that any Conservative leader coming after what we had experienced over the previous dozen years would have struggled for an audience. But we don’t live in that “what if?” alternative world: we have a prime minister who heads a hugely powerful organisation with an agenda he planned long in advance. And he isn’t cutting through.

Since the autumn, the government has spent around £20bn on personal tax cuts – the two tranches of NI reductions. Taxes are still going up because of the continuing freeze on thresholds, but this remains a huge amount of money. Yet it has had absolutely no impact on the opinion polls – an election “bribe”, the opposition call it, which has been ignored.

You would think that after the 6 March Budget, the priority in the following week would have been to ram the tax-cutting message home. Instead, incomprehensibly, Sunak decided to turn the agenda to extremism, delivering an impromptu address at a lectern outside 10 Downing Street. And that went well.

After Lee Anderson, the granite-faced populist who was lifted to prominence as a vice-chairman of the Conservative Party by Sunak, said things about the mayor of London that seemed extremist, the Prime Minister dithered for so long after removing the whip that Anderson defected to Reform UK. Then Sunak’s biggest donor, the businessman Frank Hester, fantasised about Diane Abbott being shot, at which point the Downing Street “extremism” agenda crawled away and shot itself.

So this is what we call bad politics. Sunak had observed Labour’s trouble over the Gaza vote, noted George Galloway’s victory in the Rochdale by-election on 29 February and decided it was a perfect moment to attack. Too clever by half? Bad luck? Anyway, it was a disaster.

And, by the way, the damage continues to reverberate. As part of the anti-extremism campaign, Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister, has suspended the Civil Service Muslim Network because of alleged anti-Semitism. This has caused outrage among Conservative Muslims, some of whom are now rallying to the idea of replacing Sunak with, er, Penny Mordaunt after the local elections in May.

There is frustration across Whitehall about the anxious way Downing Street approaches big decisions, almost amounting to a kind of big-policy paralysis. This isn’t because of a lack of hard work, certainly by the Prime Minister or Chancellor. So why is it happening?

The most obvious answer is intimidation: Sunak is so terrified of the right that he recoils from confronting his own people on extremism or racism. By background and inclination, he is not a red-blooded culture warrior. He is Thatcherite on economics – unlike the national mood today – but he is not a Tory right-winger’s idea of a Tory right-winger, and he knows it.

A YouGov poll earlier in the year predicted that Reform UK would cost the Conservatives 96 seats in a general election by splitting the right. Nothing has happened since then to slow Reform’s advance. If Nigel Farage decides to return to lead the party, the effect on British politics would be immense – in a weird way, the former Ukip leader turned GB News presenter remains one of the most pivotal political figures of all.

More than anything else, the Reform threat is what is driving the frantic, media-hypnotising and entirely pointless Tory leadership speculation. Reform may also have a little-noticed consequence. Because its impact is particularly strong in “Red Wall” seats such as Anderson’s Ashfield constituency, it should unseat more right-wing, pro-Brexit Tories than moderate ones, many of those who were elected in the Boris Johnson landslide of 2019. Wouldn’t it be an amusing outcome if the right-wing revolt produced a more centrist, “One Nation” Tory opposition at the end of the year?

Meanwhile, however, Sunak can’t shape the agenda because he is constantly having to manoeuvre around the leadership nonsense. I say nonsense because after another change of prime minister before the election, Britain’s last Tory voters would be unable to get themselves to the polls as they would be laughing too hard.

And the Rwanda legislation seems unlikely to make a huge difference to the mood, even if it makes it through parliament on time: the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research has suggested the cost might be up to £230,000 per migrant, and Rwanda is now saying it doesn’t want many to start with anyway.

This takes us to the May local elections. In May 1990, Kenneth Baker, then the party chairman, brilliantly spun Tory losses around the country by focusing attention on successes in Wandsworth and Westminster; it is just possible that a bad result for Sadiq Khan in the mayoral contest in London might produce the same kind of Tory relief this time. But everyone I speak to on the Conservative side is exceedingly gloomy, and the May elections may coincide with another spasm of anti-Sunak plotting, Rwanda or no Rwanda. How long can this go on?

Once authority collapses, it happens fast and chaotically. With 65 Tory MPs now having announced their departure – the affable minister for the armed forces, James Heappey, being the latest – I have never known the mood among Westminster Conservatives so grim. Bumping into a cabinet minister in a coffee queue, I unthinkingly asked how he was. I got a dark stare: “How do you think I am?” 

If Rishi Sunak makes it all the way to November or December before the election happens, the country may feel a little better off and there will be at least one more “fiscal event” – a penny off the basic rate, maybe more.

The economic outlook is not quite as dire as it seemed even a few months ago, although the outlook for public spending is unutterably bleak. There are reasons to talk about turning corners and bouncing back. But not for the Conservatives. For them, the iceberg awaits.

[See also: Downing Street cannot get a grip on Tory messaging]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024