Sunak is right on one thing: we need change

Published by The I paper (2nd October, 2023)

Is it any wonder political satire struggles so badly these days when the leader of a party in power for 13 years presents himself as the candidate of change ahead of an election? “Change may be difficult but I believe the country wants change and I am going to do things differently,” said Rishi Sunak on eve of his first Conservative conference as party leader. Never mind that our latest prime minister backed the disaster of Brexit,  pledges to scrap policies that never existed such as a tax on meat and loyally served predecessors such as David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Suddenly he is posing as a rebel with a cause: the champion of ordinary people frustrated by failures of government.

It is, of course, utterly ludicrous. But prepare to hear this C-word often as Sunak pretends to be the candidate of change against a Labour party that seems to be plodding its way to power under the cautious leadership of Sir Keir Starmer.

This surreal tactic underlines how the Tories are floundering in the polls after inflicting chaos and incompetence on the country. Meanwhile an exodus of MPs is jumping ship ahead of anticipated defeat, while the Prime Minister’s wannabe successors openly pitch for support from party members. The Prime Minister, who approaches politics like a management consultant as he pores over his beloved spreadsheets, believes this stance offers his best hope of survival. So his aides and allies have started spinning that this is “the real Rishi” to patsy hacks and the latest party slogan is “long-term decisions for a brighter future”.

Sunak, a super-rich former investment banker married to a billionaire’s daughter, claims “I have a good sense of what the British people’s priorities are”. Yet it is hard to discern what the party actually believes after five very different leaders since that wretched Brexit ballot in 2016.

He is right on one thing: Britain is a nation desperate for change. The Tories have given us the biggest tax-raising Parliament on record, resulting in Government taking more from the public in tax revenue, as percentage of national income, than at any time since the Second World War.

Yet despite taking so much of our cash – the equivalent of an extra £3,500 more per household by the time of the next election – there is a widespread feeling that public services are floundering while real wages stagnate, productivity struggles, inequality grows and the country drifts. Our political leaders look dismally out of their depth as they play pathetic tribal games, an impression underlined by Rory Stewart’s superb new book that offers such alarming insight into Britain’s dysfunctional governing system.

This situation is symbolised by the HS2 debacle, humiliation for a nation that once prided itself as a railway pioneer. Studies have shown for almost two decades that high-speed rail is a waste of money in Britain given construction costs, size of the country and existing systems. But politicians across the spectrum love a grandiose stunt. So they stuck with this flawed idea even as budgets soared to crazy levels.

Now we may end up with a half-baked scheme, with costs possibly approaching £100bn for a truncated version. When pressed if it will reach Manchester, Sunak bizarrely responded by talking about potholes in roads. But just think how these huge sums could really assist levelling up if spent on serious efforts to sort social care, fix mental health systems, build social housing or curb criminal recidivism?

Sunak – scrabbling around for definition as a politician having thankfully restored order after the farcical Johnson years – is not really taking long-term decisions for national well-being. He is grabbing a hotchpotch of focus group-tested policies that shore up the Tory base while offering dividing lines with Labour, continuing the Tory makeover as a populist party of the hard right that began with Brexit.

This explains the ditching of green policies, harsh rhetoric on refugees, endless crackdowns on crime, weary exploitation of culture wars – and the fact that Suella Braverman is still Home Secretary even after her latest offensive speech attacking multiculturalism as “misguided dogma” that even dismayed her hardline predecessor Dame Priti Patel.

So we see a party continuing the shift away from its traditional heartlands as it tries to shore up its new post-Brexit base of older voters, who are often poorer and less-well educated. “Sunak’s move on the environment can be seen as a continuation of the long-term change in the direction of the Conservative Party and its electoral base,” said former justice minister David Gauke, editor of a collection of essays by prominent centre-right figures.

Yet as former party pollster Lord Cooper writes in his powerful analysis, the Tories lost the support of nearly three million people who had voted for Remain between 2015 and 2019 – and now there is no Jeremy Corbyn to scare any waverers in the Blue Wall. “The Conservative Party, in its post-2016 incarnation, is doubling down on a shrinking demographic,” he says correctly.

The Tory party sold its soul to Brexit, then ditched any idea of a consensual deal to heal divisions. Yet while Leave won in 2016 among voters older than 45 and Remain triumphed with those younger, latest polling finds the dividing line between the two main parties is now 10 years older at 55.

Labour is strongly ahead among voters below this age, citizens more comfortable with modernity who grew up in a multicultural world with open borders in Europe. Cooper concludes there is a big lie at the heart of the Conservatives: a reluctance to accept the reality that Brexit is playing out badly, which he compares to the Republican refusal to accept Donald Trump lost the last election. “We could not have our cake and eat it,” he writes. Sadly, the Tories refuse to accept this truth. Instead they seek to win by doubling down on populism and posing as insurgents after 13 years of misrule.

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