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For the Tories, things can only get worse The PM knew he had no good options left

(HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)


May 23, 2024   3 mins

There is surely only one explanation for Rishi Sunak’s sudden rush to the polls. In stark contrast with the D:Ream anthem that nearly drowned out the Prime Minister’s announcement: things can only get worse.

Regardless of Sunak’s message that the country has turned the corner, and that he can be trusted to finish the job, a prime minister who genuinely believed the country would be noticeably better off in a few months’ time would surely wait until the end of the year to go to the polls. Sunak, by contrast, has got nothing to bank: he is 23 points behind and has calculated that today’s conditions are his best shot at remaining in power.

And, yet, our prisons are now so full that criminals are being released early and police are being asked not to make so many arrests; NHS waiting lists are at a record high; privatised water companies are poisoning people; prices have gone up more in the past two years than the previous 11; and interest rates on people’s mortgages are at their highest levels in 16 years. Oh, and taxes are also at an all-time high. “Very brave, Prime Minister,” you might say.

In one sense, then, we are now about to witness something unique, an experiment in electoral politics: what happens to a government that has made its voters poorer than when it took over? This has never happened before. Real disposable incomes have never fallen over the lifetime of a parliament — until now. So what was he thinking?

The truth is, the PM had no good options left. Over the summer, the small-boat crossings may well resume with an intensity that could overwhelm the Government. The Bank of England expects inflation to start rising again towards the end of the year. And the chances of a June interest rate cut have now been slashed.

By going early, you might argue, the Prime Minister will be able to boast that inflation is back under control. He might also see the first flights loaded with illegal immigrants take off for Rwanda during the campaign — before the inevitable summer rush of boats from the continent. His plan may have been painful, he can argue, but it is working — don’t let Labour ruin it.

“I recognise that it has not always been easy,” Sunak declared outside No. 10 in a speech that was as turgid as it was sodden. “Some of you will only just be starting to feel the benefits and for some it might still be hard when you look at your bank balance. For this hard-earned economic stability was only ever meant to be the beginning. The question now is how and who do you trust to turn that foundation into a secure future for you, your family, and our country?”

This, it seems, is the best he’s got. And as he struggled through his speech, all of his political flaws were on display. The language was ponderous and technocratic, a jumble of sentences without any killer line or theme. Campaign slogans don’t get much weaker than: “I will forever do everything in my power to provide you with the strongest possible protection I can.”

“As he struggled through his speech, all of his political flaws were on display.”

Sunak did recover some form when he got to Starmer. “If he was happy to abandon all the promises he made to become Labour leader once he got the job, how can you know that he won’t do exactly the same thing if he were to become Prime Minister?” Here is the Labour leader’s Achilles’ heel. Very few people think he is dangerous or corrupt or incapable or malign. But quite a few think he is untrustworthy.

And this, I’m told, is where the Conservative Party will initially aim its campaign: it will try to throw the Labour Party off balance. “You’ve got to start making stuff up,” said one experienced campaigner. ”You’ve got to declare that they haven’t ruled out this or that policy that the Labour base wants to see, in order to force Labour to rule it out, upsetting their campaign.” He continued: “It’s not a lot and probably won’t make any difference, but you’ve got to try.”

The great question at the heart of this election, though, is not how much enthusiasm there is for Starmer and the Labour Party — it’s how desperate the country is to see the back of this Conservative government.

If there were a concerted attempt by voters to destroy the Tories — voting tactically or moving en masse towards Labour — I’m told the party could be looking at a reduced rump of 100 seats; a catastrophe worse than 1997. But even if the party were to run an effective campaign, and voters did not move en masse, a best-case scenario would see them hold 220 seats — most probably handing Labour a majority beyond that won by Boris Johnson in 2019. And one insider tells me they are already moving resources from battleground seats to protect those in the Cabinet.

The damp and depressing truth is that by going for an election now, Sunak was hoping to project an image of strength. In reality it is an admission of weakness.


Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague

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Rob N
Rob N
1 month ago

As an ex Conservative activist I, sadly, have to hope for their complete destruction. Only then might we get an alternative to the Blairites policies of the past 27 years. Just not sure we will survive the Labour years.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob N

I give labour one and a half years, two at the outside before they’re more unpopular than the tories. Then there’ll be blood. Just look at their front bench: Lammy, Rayner, Reeves, Nandy, Streeting, Millipede . . . you couldn’t put together a finer collection of beetle-browed, dull-eyed, slack-jawed knuckle draggers if you tried.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago

That list looks increasingly appealing compared to the current clowns in Govt or any team they could otherwise field. Thanks for helping illuminate.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob N

Just not sure we will survive the Labour years.

That of course is the big problem with your ‘destruction’ theory, which would create a Labour government without effective opposition running rampant with their socialist wokery.

George Venning
George Venning
30 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

It says something about the profound incompetence of the current Labour Party that their antagonists are convinced that they stand poised to unleash paleo-socialism, woke in tooth and claw, whilst their would-be supporters despair that they are Tories in all but name.
Things can only get better? My foot
Say what you like about what Labour will actually do, but terrifying your opponents whilst disappointing your supporters is the wrong quadrant of the graph.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
30 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

In a two party system, one party has to collapse before another can take its place.
If a collapse of the Tories led to Reform or the Workers’ Party taking their place, that may not suit the ‘blob’.

David L
David L
30 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Hadn’t you noticed? Socialist wokery is already running rampant. What did the tories do about it? Nothing!

David L
David L
30 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

This isn’t a conservative party. For all I can tell, Corbyn won in 2019 after all.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
1 month ago

Not exactly Brenda from Bristol but at least we can get it over and done with.
I can’t vote for the man who pissed all the money away during lockdown, or indeed any party that thought taking away my liberties was a good idea.
I know that probably means we get Starmer, but the sooner he is in the sooner he can be got out… the Tories need a decent period in the wilderness to grow a backbone and some sensible Tory policies

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago

I feel an annihilation coming on…

Also, I might venture to draw a parallel with Germany here.

When Merkel finally left office in 2021, no-one was sorry to see her go. Even if you supported her politics, you had to admit that she was at least 5 years past her political sell-by date and that that hanging-on had begun to seriously damage Germany.

In the intervening 3 years, I have not heard or seen written anything in the direction of “Oh, how I wish Merkel was still here.” Not in the media, not privately. No one misses her.

Similarly, I think most British voters really want to see the Tories in their current form wiped out and gone. After they are shoved out of power, possibly into the history books, no one will pine for them either.

However, if the current German government is anything to go by, then the phrase “from the frying pan into the fire” was never more apt. “Vom Regen in die Traufe” as the Germans have it.

The good news for y’all is that Starmer, wooden and untrustworthy as he is, just doesn’t compare to Olaf Scholz in the dodginess stakes. Scholz wins that competition by a country mile.

Dr E C
Dr E C
1 month ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

What do you have against Scholtz may I ask?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 month ago
Reply to  Dr E C

That he has no leadership skills. That he can’t communicate for toffee. That he’s been known to be very rude and offhand to journalists. That he’s been implicated in, or been in the vicinity of, several high profile dodgy dealings (Warburg Bank, Wirecard) and his involvement never been fully clarified. To name but 4 reasons.

Liam F
Liam F
30 days ago
Reply to  Dr E C

Not to mention jumping on a plane to China with half of Germanys industry titans to say to the Chinese , you do what you like as long as you still buy our stuff.
UK Defence secretary Ben Wallace criticised Chancellor Olaf Scholz after he appeared to suggest British troops are helping Ukraine to fire long range missiles.
The former Cabinet minister accused him of “not only dangerous use of facts but also often wrong facts!”
In a criticism of Mr Scholz, Mr Wallace said: “Scholz’s behaviour has showed he is the wrong man, in the wrong job at the wrong time.”

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
30 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

A rectangular piece of brown wooden bedroom furniture is just what you would buy if you wanted to enter a radical new world.

Phil Day
Phil Day
1 month ago

Don’t see any party capable of getting to grips with the challenges this country is facing. As a lifelong tory voter who refuses to support the current bunch of infants in power or the labour party all l can say is a plague on all of them.

Where’s the modern day Cromwell when he’s needed.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago
Reply to  Phil Day

Where’s the modern day Cromwell when he’s needed.
Futilely ranting on youtube.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
30 days ago
Reply to  Phil Day

One assessment of Cromwell is that he was always a man of the establishment.
Contrary to the wonderful 1970 film featuring Richard Harris, the Commonwealth governments were largely ineffectual.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
30 days ago
Reply to  Phil Day

Heading the Reform party

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

I’m an American with no skin in this game, but surely Sunak is tired by now. For many reasons, some beyond his control, the Conservatives are failing to deliver on their policies. They also seem unwilling to directly and aggressively pursue the policies that got them elected. Sunak is a dead man walking and my sense is he’ll be happier returning to the world of business and finance.

D Glover
D Glover
30 days ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Indeed. One of his properties is a Pacific-facing penthouse in Santa Monica, and at one time he had a Green Card.
I think you might be seeing more of him than I will quite soon. Not sorry.

Will K
Will K
1 month ago

It seems clear that the UK is on a downward economic and social course. Why, is not clear. Not to me anyway. I suspect its due to many factors: maybe an effect of overpopulation, or the gradual loss of the UK’s unique 19th Century advantage in the World, or that people will no longer accept the same life their parents did. I don’t doubt that the Conservatives are doing their best, and I don’t blame them for the downward trend. I’m not convinced that Labour understands the problem, or how to fix it. So my expectation is that after Labour takes power, the downward spiral will continue. To young people, I’d suggest thinking about moving abroad.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Will K

To where, exactly? It’s this type of defeatist attitude that’s part of the problem. For goodness sake, don’t infect young people with it.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

The antipodes! Australia needs doctors, nurses, teachers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians …. plane loads are arriving, but there’s room for more. Think about having a swim before work every morning of the year; a balmy, blue-skied 27c today in Perth, though it’ll be ‘winter’ in another week.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Will K

There is something fundamentally wrong with UK capitalism. It requires much more consideration than sloganeering often allow. What we need to better understand is why only 2% of UK pension funds invested here in the UK, (think about it – only 2%!!) and why have we had an increase in foreign ownership of our companies. And of course are the two issues linked (seems obvious) and how we correct this.
We then need to also dispassionately look at the Water industry model (and other natural monopolies) we’ve ended up with and how we correct that. £70b in dividends cannot be paid out whilst leaving us in the current sewage infested mess. It’s not just a failure of Regulation, it has to cover some broader principles. The Right needs to think about this carefully as much as anyone.
Part of our problem is the ‘what’s wrong’ debate fixates on tax cuts, Brexit, cheap migrant labour etc and rarely really gets into how investment capital in the UK works.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
30 days ago
Reply to  j watson

There is something fundamentally wrong with UK capitalism.

Yea, ‘capitalism’ doesn’t exist. Can I just take my capital, buy some land, then build houses on *my* land to service demand for homes? No, I have to go cap-in-hand to the state & ask for permission, whereupon they will at best increase my costs massively or more likely just say “no”.
We have a corporatist system, not a capitalist one, in which both main parties hate & fear free markets in most areas of the economy.

j watson
j watson
30 days ago

Oh dear not another disgruntled property developer trying to get away with the least amount of sensible planning poss whilst they clear off with their money. You have of course illuminated a mentality which has got us where we are.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
30 days ago
Reply to  j watson

You can’t on the one hand posit there is something wrong with UK capitalism and use a state regulated industry as an example and then criticise someone for highlighting another area where the state interposes itself in the free market process.

Prior to 1947 you didn’t need planning permission at all in most instances, but now it’s almost impossible to get it and the process certainly cannot be described as ‘sensible’.

j watson
j watson
30 days ago

You can criticise someone where the analogy doesn’t hold at all. A property developer potentially looking to avoid considerations of transport, utility load, schooling, local health care etc is million miles from a full analysis of what has gone wrong with some of our natural monopolies post privatisation.
I agree some changes to planning laws needed, but with careful consideration. This Govt had 14yrs of course. The Right is waking up a bit late

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

The PM of our country announcing an election while standing in the pissing rain being drowned out by music on a megaphone. What an image of weakness to project to the world. Any confident leader would have had a flunky with an umbrella, and the megaphone broken in an alley.

j watson
j watson
1 month ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

But come on, this is the same Right Wing Govt that talks tough on crime and hasn’t got enough prison places such thousands now being released early.
It’s a pattern.

richard jones
richard jones
30 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Maybe not…John Major got on a soapbox with a megaphone and beat a Labour party projecting power with relish….remember Kinnock leaping from a helicopter and running into a packed auditorium that was belting out “we are the champions…”?
When it comes to politics, Brits love a bit of humility…it’s why, come an election, the leaders are always asked the price of a pint of milk.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
30 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

The Climate giving its verdict on the Tories. Washed up.

William Edward Henry Appleby
William Edward Henry Appleby
1 month ago

This:

“a prime minister who genuinely believed the country would be noticeably better off in a few months’ time would surely wait until the end of the year to go to the polls.”

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 month ago

It’s not that simple. Even if he believed people would get better off, he needs to go before the Rwanda flights become battered by legal challenges.

William Edward Henry Appleby
William Edward Henry Appleby
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

So, it’s even more cynical than I first thought.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
1 month ago

It should have been ELO playing in the background:
“I’m standing in the rain
Getting soaking wet
I’m doing my best
But what do I get?”

Dr E C
Dr E C
1 month ago

Fed up with reading about entirely solvable problems as if they were natural disasters that just happened to our luckless political class:

‘our prisons are now so full that criminals are being released early and police are being asked not to make so many arrests; NHS waiting lists are at a record high; privatised water companies are poisoning people; prices have gone up more in the past two years than the previous 11; and interest rates on people’s mortgages are at their highest levels in 16 years. Oh, and taxes are also at an all-time high.‘

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago
Reply to  Dr E C

As was once said, “The supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.”

Adrian C
Adrian C
1 month ago

Rishi was never PM material, unfortunately we don’t have any Cromwell figure to take the helm – As an ex-conservative voter lets hope Labour surprises us all with competent government but don’t hold your breath.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago

I haven’t heard any pundits suggest this as the reason for Sunak’s lemming-like lunge for the cliff-edge, but it’s probably as simple as this: he was a couple of letters away from triggering yet another leadership contest, and the party top circle probably decided even a huge election defeat would be better than that.

Howard Royse
Howard Royse
30 days ago

What can you say about the sort of person that has no more sense than to stand in the pouring rain wearing a suit?

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
30 days ago

This suggests nothing bad had happened in the last few years, completely outside of Government’s control, like Covid and foreign wars affecting energy prices and therefore the cost of everything. Does anyone really think Covid came free?

Do people not know that most other Westernised countries to a great extent are suffering what Britain is, whether Governments were left or right? For example Australia has a Labor Government, but there’s a housing crisis, inflation, labour shortages, transport and healthcare strikes, healthcare waiting lists, high interest rates….do I need to go on?

Giles Toman
Giles Toman
30 days ago

We could solve the small boats problem simply, by sinking one or two. The rest would soon get the hint.

Mark V
Mark V
26 days ago

The Tories are over, they don’t stand for anything.