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Sunak is right to tell voters that things can only get worse. But why on Earth should they listen? | Conservative Home

The march of war begins. Even if Rishi Sunak was unwilling to confirm the general election date, he used his speech yesterday to gear Westminster up for a long campaign. His message was familiar, if bleak. Here is the decision facing voters: “The choice at the next election is: who do you trust to keep you safe?” Asking so direct a question can be risky, as Edward Heath once found.

Nonetheless, the Prime Minister wants to go to the country on Britain’s security. The next five years, he believes, will be some of our most “dangerous”. We face threats from “an axis of authoritarian states like Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China”, and from illegal migration, cultural conflict, and AI. Brace yourself, since “more will change in the next five years than in the last 30”.

I share Sunak’s lack of optimism for the near future. Having previously written about closing every known AI lab and my fear that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will soon send the global economy into meltdown, I cannot demure when my theme of bleakness is taken up by the King’s chief minister. Great minds think alike, and all that. Sunak used it to frame the coming choice for voters.

Who do you trust to navigate you through the “storms ahead”? Sunak, who has promised to hike defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP, has an honesty about the costs of Net Zero, and fought hard to deliver the Rwanda policy? Or Keir Starmer, who wants to scrap the last, hasn’t committed to the first, and plans to use the one to between to deliver rolling blackouts by 2030?

The Prime Minister did not hold back. For switching from “embracing Jeremy Corbyn to embracing Natalie Elphicke”, Starmer is “completely and utterly principled”. It shows “you can’t trust what the guy says” in his “cynical pursuit of power at any price”. Corbyn was mention several times. So was the fact that Angela Rayner and David Lammy have voted against Trident renewal.

In fairness, on that I agree with Labour’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Foreign Secretary. Nonetheless, Sunak was punchy, and at his best. When he claimed he feels a “profound sense of urgency” about Britain’s challenges, you sat up and listened. I can’t remember a single gag. He is not only in politics for the spreadsheets, or to fill time pre-California. He loves his country, and will say so.

He wants a Britain that “can feel proud again” – a not disagreeable sentiment. But he also presented a grim picture of the present. “Extremists,” he suggested, “are also exploiting these global conflicts to divide us”. Antisemitic chants on our streets. Gender activists hijacking children’s sex education. Aggressive fringe groups forcing their views on us. Sunak’s Britain is under assault.

“Life is pretty miserable, don’t let Labour make it worse” is not the most compelling election slogan. Hardly “Morning in America”, is it? But what else does Number 10 have to run on? Even if economy is “going gangbusters”, voters are still poorer than in 2019. Sunak might want the election to be on the future. But he can’t escape the past. Perhaps swap Jilly Cooper for F Scott Fitzgerald?

Sunak timed his speech for the fourteenth anniversary of the Conservatives returning to power in 2010. Having written off the last thirty years at October’s party conference, he has realised that trashing your entire time in government just ahead of a general election is not wholly wise – especially if you make your predecessor-but-three your Foreign Secretary. Voters might even notice.

To those assembled at Policy Exchange – a more sympathetic audience than most  – Sunak lauded a succession of Tory achievements dating back to before he was an MP. The greatest hits: Michael Gove’s education reforms, the creation of 4 million jobs, the Covid vaccine, NHS funding, the triple lock, Brexit, and gay marriage. Has he been reading Iain Mansfield’s Tweets?

Your opinion on how impressive that looks depends on your own idiosyncratic metrics for judging a Conservative government. You might think shovelling money into a socialist dumpster fire, allowing homosexuals to marry, and putting jabs into arms was appeasing the high-taxing, lockdown-loving, lanyard-flaunting, tofu-eating wokerati. Or you might not, as I don’t. And so it goes.

Even so, Sunak can’t pick and choose which parts of the last fourteen years he wants voters to remember. When Labour “ignores the achievements” and tries to “reduce the last 14 years to 49 days”, voters should be aware that they are “trying to distract you from the thing that matters most: the future”. Never mind about that mini-Budget. Have you heard? We’re banning banana vapes.

Yet this shows the absurdity of taking a Janus-faced approach to our time in government is. Sunak cannot run on the good whilst ignoring the bad. Voters are not stupid, even if they never say thank you. He might want them to think of phonics and vaccines. But he can’t stop them thinking of austerity, Partygate, crumbling schools, soaring immigration, and the worst Prime Minister in history.

This was a very SW1-focused speech (and not only because it was delivered at the think tank where Sunak once worked). This confirmed to the assembled hacks of what Number 10’s basic electoral strategy would be. Since Isaac Levido’s store cupboard is so bare, it didn’t take a huge leap of the imagination. There are only ever two election campaigns – change vs continuity.

Furthermore, in prepping voters for the torrent of misery likely coming our way over the next five years, Sunak revealed a truth that most politicians are usually unwilling to. The vast majority of what decides our fate – geopolitical crises, economic downturns, the quality of the weather – are beyond the control of those we elect. Why admit just how powerless they are? Events, dear boy…

Because most politicians are in denial about their pointlessness, they struggle to brandish the little power they actually possess. Didn’t you know? Leaking to Harry Cole is 90 per cent of the job. Through his honesty, intellect, and sheer doggedness, Sunak is one of the few who might have cut through this madness. Yesterday we saw the premier he might once have had the chance to be.

But none of us choose the hand we’re dealt. After his retirement, Otto von Bismarck said that “positive undertakings in politics are extraordinarily difficult, and when they succeed, one should thank God that they led to a boon and not find fault with trivialities.” The best case for Sunak back in 2022 was that he was not Liz Truss. He is still the best choice for the party – and the country.

For all the mud one has to fling at the Prime Minister as part of this job, I would still rather a Conservative government led by him, Cameron, and Jeremy Hunt than one of Starmer, Lammy, and Rachel Reeves. I would trust him more to navigate the choppy waters ahead than a Labour party that still can’t believe its luck, has no idea what it wants to do, and will say anything to be elected.

If politics is “the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best“, the choice is as clear as the Prime Minister made it yesterday. Ignore the noises off. Either Sunak will be in Number 10, or Starmer will be. If you want to avoid the latter, vote for the former. Neither might be able to survive the coming tidal wave. There is no Winston Churchill to hand. Sunak is the best we have. 

If nothing else, he was right to say that things can only get worse, regardless of which party is in power. But on why on Earth should voters listen? Better to live in blissful ignorances, than have to make honest choices. Into the valley we will ride. 

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