In the past month, I’ve asked three government ministers to describe the Conservative vision for the country five years from now. One laughed awkwardly. Another said they didn’t know. And a third descended into an unintelligible garble of abstract nouns.
Even when I ask for some basic principles, answers elude them. Part of the problem, I’m told, is they don’t think it’s worth setting out their vision because voters won’t listen. And the only way to rebuild the requisite credibility is to deliver on Rishi Sunak’s five priorities (I won’t bore you with the list).
The problem with that strategy is Sunak’s five priorities are proving harder to achieve than most observers (myself included) initially thought. Migrants continue to cross the Channel in large numbers. Core inflation, which ignores volatile prices such as energy, is rising. Yesterday the Office for National Statistics announced that national debt has risen above 100 per cent of GDP for the first time since Harold Macmillan was in No 10. Growth remains paltry. All of which makes it less likely that Jeremy Hunt can deliver a noticeable tax cut ahead of the next general election, let alone set out a vision of the future.
[See also: PMQs: Rishi Sunak sees how it all might end]
But it’s even worse than senior Tories might think. The core problem with the priorities is that even if Sunak meets them, voters wouldn’t necessarily believe their situation has improved. He could stand at a podium, inflation chart in hand, and people won’t be convinced because, as new polling from Survation points out, most don’t know what “halving inflation” is. They believe it means that next year goods and services will cost either the same as they do now (31 per cent) or less (32 per cent). (Inflation is the rate at which prices rise, therefore lower inflation simply means prices rise by less.) Those intending to vote Conservative were more likely to think this than other voters. Sunak can’t achieve what voters think he’s promising – that’s a problem.
Another point of interest from the Survation poll is that around 40 per cent of people hold the government responsible for reducing inflation compared with 39 per cent who look to the Bank. We are seeing signs that the government may start blaming the Bank for failing to prevent inflation (Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, intimated as much on Sky News yesterday and Jeremy Hunt’s external economic advisers have been more explicit). In contrast to Liz Truss, Sunak made a point of taking responsibility for inflation even though most of the levers needed to address it are held by Threadneedle Street. Given he’s reiterated this for six months now, it might look desperate to start blaming someone else.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.