ANDREW NEIL: If Rishi Sunak loses the election next year, it’ll be because he’s not been Tory enough – or even AT ALL
They were hardly the presents Rishi Sunak would have wanted to celebrate his first anniversary as prime minister: two more crushing by-election defeats in hitherto safe Tory seats to add to those he lost in July.
Once again the Tories were on the wrong end of 20 per cent-plus swings, this time in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire, which both fell to Labour in the early hours of yesterday morning.
It was, opined the country’s premier election guru, John Curtice, ‘one of the worst by-election nights any government has had to endure’.
He’s right. Of course, by-elections are a chance to protest, not choose a government. Turnouts are usually low, as they were on Thursday. Prime ministers have lost such elections heavily in the past and still gone on to victory in the subsequent general election. But the scale of these latest defeats is staggering, and Tory party managers cannot easily shrug them off.
In Mid Beds, Labour overturned the biggest Tory majority faced in a by-election since 1945. The seat had been a Conservative stronghold since 1931.
Once again the Tories were on the wrong end of 20 per cent-plus swings, this time in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire
Newly elected Labour MP Sarah Edwards with party leader Sir Keir Starmer at Tamworth Football Club, after winning the Tamworth by-election
The Tories lost Tamworth to Labour even though it had voted for Brexit with a share of 67 per cent. Clearly, the dynamics that gave the Tories their big majority in 2019 no longer apply.
It all adds to the growing sense, already embedded in much of the Tory psyche, that the next election is all over bar the shouting.
Tory by-election defeats under Sunak are eerily on the same scale as those suffered by John Major’s hapless Tory government between 1992 and 1997 — and we all know how that ended.
I don’t yet sense that Labour is heading for a landslide. Keir Starmer, after all, is no Tony Blair. But the best the Tories can hope for — that, far from being 1997, the next election will be a repeat of 1992 when, against the odds, they held on by the skin of their teeth for another term — is starting to look like a fantasy.
Starmer may be no Blair. But he is no Neil Kinnock, either. By 1992 the country was truly scunnered by the Tories, but voters were still not prepared to entrust its fate to Kinnock, given his record of Left-wing posturing, especially on unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Today people don’t fear Starmer in the same way.
They’re not gagging for him to be PM. But they’re not frightened by the prospect, as they were of Kinnock.
It is not clear what Sunak will do now, before the die is cast and Labour victory is universally regarded as inevitable (as it was by 1996 during the Major years).
Tories grow increasingly despondent at how little difference Sunak has made after 12 months. The polls remain dire for the Tories: Sunak was 27 points behind when he entered No 10 and, while he has clawed back some ground, Labour still leads by 17 per cent.
Starmer may be no Blair. But he is no Neil Kinnock, either. By 1992 the country was truly scunnered by the Tories, but voters were still not prepared to entrust its fate to Kinnock
Starmer has been careful to echo government policy at every important turn. Neither Sunak nor Starmer brings any particular authority or expertise to these troubled times
There has been no ‘new leader’ bounce the way there was when Major took over from Margaret Thatcher in 1990. The Tory conference in Manchester failed to move the dial.
Sunak has had his successes. But they have not amounted to enough to be the catalyst for a Tory fightback.
He has steadied the ship after the chaotic 45 days of the ClusterTruss interregnum a year ago, which almost brought the country to its knees.
But that was inflicted on the nation by his own party, which selected Liz Truss as PM even though she would obviously be out of her depth, so he was only cleaning up an unnecessary Tory mess.
Moreover, the high interest rates which her cack-handed stewardship of the economy produced have remained elevated, with mortgage rates and government borrowing costs rising everywhere.
Sunak’s ‘Windsor Framework’, though far from perfect, has stabilised Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom and largely removed it as a cause of friction with the European Union.
But, again, that was cleaning up a problem created by the Tories (this time Boris Johnson). So voters are not inclined to accord Sunak much credit.
If Sunak does go down to defeat at the next election it will not be because he’s been too Tory
He has backtracked somewhat from the expensive folly that is net zero, though not by nearly enough. And, at a time of acute geopolitical unrest and danger, the PM has been a safe pair of hands and shown resolute support for Ukraine and Israel.
But he does not cut a distinctive figure on the world stage. His visit to Israel this week, welcome as it was, seemed almost like a footnote to President Biden’s.
Nor are there many votes in foreign policy which, on the big issues, is now largely bipartisan. Starmer has been careful to echo government policy at every important turn. Neither Sunak nor Starmer brings any particular authority or expertise to these troubled times. Foreign policy does not differentiate them. Nor, as things stand, will it determine the next election.
Sunak’s biggest problem is the economy. After a year in power, it is still mired in sclerotic growth, stubbornly strong inflation, a record-high tax burden, a fierce cost-of-living squeeze, rising national debt (which high interest rates are making ever more expensive to service) and stagnant productivity, which hinders increased prosperity.
It is a dismal catalogue of woe which has condemned the Sunak government to inaction. No radical supply-side reforms — such as a bonfire of red tape — to pep up the economy, a la Thatcher (the Treasury has convinced Sunak they don’t work), no tax cuts to encourage enterprise and incentives (we ‘can’t afford them’), no strategy for growth, without which nothing is possible. Instead, the policy is simply to plough on regardless.
The consequences are enough to give any self-respecting Tory the heebie-jeebies. More than 6.5 million low-paid workers will start paying income tax again, reversing a decade of Tory efforts to take them out of tax.
More than 4.5 million folks on middling incomes are being dragged into higher tax brackets that were designed for big earners. Business faces higher tax on profits with a corporate tax regime that has plummeted down the global competitive league tables.
Together it amounts to a £52 billion tax grab in which families will pay considerably more tax for the privilege, when they fall ill, of joining the 7.75 million on NHS waiting lists.
If Sunak does go down to defeat at the next election it will not be because he’s been too Tory. It will be because he has not been Tory enough — or even Tory at all.
Time is running out for him. He continues to brandish his five pledges for 2023 — halving inflation, growing the economy, cutting debt, reducing NHS waiting lists, stopping the small boats. Some he will succeed in delivering, just (such as inflation), others he will fail (debt, small boats, waiting lists, too little growth to notice). Even if he does better, it will not be an election-winning prospectus.
There is a last chance. The British people want to feel their own circumstances are improving again — that the worst of the cost-of-living crisis is behind them — and that they live in a country of which they can be proud (and in which the things that matter work).
Sunak needs to focus relentlessly on the policies that will deliver on both fronts and eschew all other diversions (his Manchester speech was full of diversions irrelevant to winning the election, such as a ten-year reform of A-levels or tougher anti-smoking laws).
It will not be easy. Global turmoil could yet bring more economic pain. There is less than a year to make a difference.
It will require vision, discipline, a willingness to say no to the myriad opportunists that lobby government for favours, distracting from the only two tasks that matter — getting living standards to rise and making sure Britain stands tall in the world again.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt needs to make a start in his Autumn Statement next month, though I’m not holding my breath.
‘Time for a change’ is the most potent slogan in politics, and it is already a powerful rallying cry in today’s Britain, as the by-elections show. Without the ruthless focus I’m talking about from Sunak and his ministers it will have swept this government out of power by this time next year.
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