6 October 2023

Rishi Sunak vs the world


I’m not sure if Rishi Sunak has ever heard of Scott Pilgrim vs the World. The Canadian graphic novel series – and half-decent Edgar Wright adaptation – seems an unlikely interest for a Prime Minister with a predilection for rom coms, Jilly Cooper bonkbusters, and derivative space operas. 

Nonetheless, Sunak might have some sympathy for the central character. Pilgrim – a Toronto slacker, a world away from a Sotonian plutocrat – has to fight the seven evil exes of Ramona, his new girlfriend, in order to date her. The Prime Minister found himself in a similar situation at this year’s Conservative Party Conference. Not to win the hand of the delightful Akshata Murty, but to get a hearing from a weary party and country.  

Since Sunak entered Number 10 last October, he has been operating on the assumption that the last thing that voters want is to hear about the Conservatives. The Tory telenovela almost found itself permanently cancelled during last year’s Liz Truss mini-series. Hence a year of quietly plugging away at the PM’s five priorities – no, I can’t remember what they are either – to impress a tired public through tedium. 

But with only a year until the next election, it is about time that the quiet man(agement consultant) started turning up the volume. Whether or not the shift is inspired by the irrepressible spectre of Dominic Cummings is less important than what it means for governing (and your ability to buy a cigarette). Sunak’s speech outlined his new mission: to rail against the ‘the 30-year political status quo’. 

In practice, that means slaying some evil ex-Prime Ministers. Neither Boris Johnson nor David Cameron bothered to brave the coach journey up to Manchester, yet both have already Tweeted their displeasure at Sunak’s decision to cancel the rest of HS2. Both had given the project their blessing during their premierships. Both will see the railway’s scrapping as a threat to what little legacy they have left, whatever the policy’s own merits. 

Irritating his predecessors is a Sunak habit. Speaking of which, both Theresa May and Liz Truss managed to attend. The former was the darling of the Blackwell’s book stand; the latter the headline speaker of a ‘Great British Growth’ rally. Both have had the Sunak treatment. Pushing back the date by which new non-electric cars are banned frustrates the Net Zero target May hoped would substitute for delivering Brexit. And on a number of levels, Sunak’s whole premiership is a fundamental repudiation of the Truss experiment. 

There is a logic to the Prime Minister’s approach. May and Johnson both defined themselves against their predecessors, cashing in on popular discontent with austerity and a failure to deliver Brexit. Renewal in government is one way in which a party can remain fresh and appealing to the voters – and remove a need for them to look covetously towards Keir Starmer. 

But you can only pull a trick so many times. Saying, as Sunak did yesterday, that ‘it is time for a change and we are it’ rings hollow after 13 years of Conservative government. His hope with his 30-year figure is to imply that his Tory predecessors were the other half of a New Labour continuum of which Starmer is just the latest instalment. Yet it’s very easy to hear 30 as 13 – especially when you’re still 15-odd points behind in the polls.  

It’s telling that the conference slogan – ‘long-term decisions for a brighter future’ – didn’t get much further than the Prime Minister’s speech. Those in the Cabinet with one eye on their leadership prospects were much more interested in burnishing their credentials, whether through Suella Braverman’s Channel weather-watching or Penny Mordaunt’s strained attempt to add public-speaking to her sword-carrying party trick. 

Fringe panels seemed to collectively look towards the sunlit uplands of opposition. Various different euphemisms for ‘What is the future of Conservatism’ had been identified and populated by think tanks, magazines, and blogs with a reliably similar cast list. The crimes of government were as well-known as they were genuine: record taxation, no housebuilding, record migration, woke. Rinse, repeat, and shove it on GB News between whichever presenters aren’t currently suspended or arrested. 

We’ve had 13 years of these conferences. That’s 13 years of bad ministerial jokes (and bad jokes of ministers). 13 years of policies pledged that lasted no longer than one-night stands after the LGBT disco. 13 years of bad suits, even worse hangovers, and being screamed at in the street by leftie students, Jesus freaks, and badger worshippers. And for what? An increasingly gloomy consensus – shared by the Prime Minister – that it has all been for nothing. 

I enjoy conference. It’s hard not to with an expense account. Having never attended just as a party member, I don’t know if the average Tory finds it a satisfying experience. But train strikes and two decades of corporate creep have conspired to push party members slowly out of the picture. Few want to squeeze past the lobbyists in the bar of the Midland hotel. Little of interest would they find there if they did. 

Indeed, what interaction there is to be had is a formality. You might get lucky with a question at a fringe panel. But members are mostly there to clap the PM’s speech and give interviews to passing YouTubers. Their thoughts on the party’s future are of little interest to the leadership. They didn’t vote for Rishi Sunak; he is more interested in talking to the country than to them. And so they turn away, towards Nigel Farage and apathy. 

Scott Pilgrim eventually defeated Ramona’s evil exes and won her hand. Whether Sunak can do the same seems unlikely. He has at least laid out a pathway to get a fifth Conservative term, even if smoking bans and a new baccalaureate are hardly top voter priorities. The question is whether his party really wants one. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.