Sketchy Politics: Sunak sets out his stall for the election
The FT's Robert Shrimsley and Miranda Green sketch out how the British prime minister is hoping to tempt voters to support the Conservatives ahead of elections next year. Can the return of David Cameron or Jeremy Hunt's tax cuts make a difference? The FT's Robert Shrimsley and Miranda Green sketch out how the British prime minister is hoping to tempt voters to support the Conservatives ahead of elections next year. Can the return of David Cameron or Jeremy Hunt's tax cuts make a difference?
Produced and edited by Tom Hannen. Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald & Petros Gioumpasis
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We haven't got a car. I'm going to have to quickly draw a car.
Dun, da-da dun, dun, dun, dum. It looks like 'dolitics'
Come on, honestly? Sketchy Politics: Sunak sets out his stall. Robert, welcome back to the show.
Hey, Miranda. Before we start, I have got us a prop at no expense spared - £4.99 Amazon, second-class post.
I feel the time has come. I have got us a stencil of the UK, complete with Ireland.
Oh, perhaps you do care a little.
I don't want it in any way to disparage your drawing, which is immeasurably better than mine, but I'm sick of people complaining. We have a UK map, now, whenever we need it.
All right, we...
We can't see it.
That's because it's transparent, you fool.
Thank you very much, indeed. Look, we've lost...
If we stencil it...
Northern Ireland has come out.
Northern Ireland has come out. Look, there it is. There is our map of the UK. It could not be better.
It's a bit small. It looked bigger when I bought it, anyway.
Do you think, perhaps, this reflects Britain's standing in the world? The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, gets very irritated if people say that Britain's standing in the world is not what it was, but you seem to be making an argument.
OK. We feel that the Conservative party has set out its stall for the election.
Well, for this week.
For this week... it does change a lot. That's an important caveat. So I would like to invite you to the Conservative market stall...
...to discuss what the retail offer, in that horrible political jargon, is to the voters.
So we have our little market. We've got some whelks here because, of course, the national whelk stall has been run by the Conservative party for 13 years. By next year, when we expect the election to be, it will have been run by the Conservative party for 14 years. Of course, the national whelk stall - the UK - could be under new management.
Yes, because they've cockled it up.
...because they've cockled it up.
So, for now, we want to discuss, what do we really think Rishi Sunak is offering the voters, as he sets out his stall? So we've had the prime minister's King's Speech. We've had Jeremy Hunt's Autumn Statement on the economy. We've got a new team in place. We've got David Cameron, James Cleverly...
Wait, wait, wait. David Cameron - sorry, we have to... dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun.
OK, a newly-ennobled David Cameron.
We've got a new health secretary because, of course, the NHS is a huge election battleground - Victoria Atkins. Where do you think we are? And you raised the fact that, actually, the Conservative strategy is a bit over here, and then over here, and then over here. Do you feel it's now set so that we can have this conversation, roughly knowing what the offer to the electorate will be?
Well, that's quite hard to say, in one sense, because so much of it, I think, is about the internal problems and machinations and debates within the Conservative party that, actually, even though I think they have now roughly landed at the place they needed to be at...
...there's so many in the party - Suella Braverman, for example - who are agitating against Rishi Sunak, who think the election is lost and are just fighting for the next future. So question is whether he can stick on his strategy. One of the problems we've seen since the end of summer, early July, they've been bouncing around on the strategy. So, one point, their strategy was the defence of the motorist, and that was their strategy. And then we get to the party conferences, and Rishi Sunak is the change candidate.
Then we have the Autumn Statement, and the change candidate has changed again. He's had a reshuffle. He's brought back David Cameron, whose premiership he was denouncing in his party conference. They've landed on the strategy, I think, which was the only one that was viable for them, which is we're turning the corner.
Things are a bit better. We've had an awfully bumpy Parliament, much of it not our fault, and we're getting there. And, actually, the grown-ups are back in charge. You can trust us. Don't throw it away.
So that is the fundamental strategy. The retail strategy of the Conservative party is, fundamentally, we are the old Conservative party you know, love, and trust, and we're running the country. And we'll run it better than anybody else. And that's the only retail strategy they've got.
That is a hell of a change within a matter of weeks...
...as you point out.
And we're all well aware of the problems with that strategy, which I'm sure we'll come to.
Absolutely. So Suella Braverman, darling of the right, but out of the cabinet, replaced with James Cleverly at the Home Office.
He looks good with that hair, doesn't he?
Yeah, he does look good with her hair. Cameron into the Lords as foreign secretary. Jeremy Hunt. Let's talk about the economy because Rishi Sunak had five pledges that he set at the beginning of 2023, and three of them are about the economy. We've had Jeremy Hunt try and make a really dramatic pitch to the voters. So what do you make of this core Conservative pitch on the economy, which is, we're conquering inflation, we're offering you tax cuts, and we've got a plan for growth?
It's not the worst pitch that they could come up with, though I think what it's missing is enough time talking about just what crises we've had in the country. You don't talk about Liz Truss if you're a Conservative. You don't want to necessarily talk about Brexit all the time, but you do want to talk about Covid, and you do want to talk about the energy spike - the energy crisis caused by Ukraine.
Can I just ask you that? Do you think they should be talking about that more because it's the reason for the financial hole, the economic hole that we're in or because the electorate should be grateful for furlough and help with energy bills?
Gratitude is not a thing you get in elections.
But there is an argument there - I don't think it's gratitude - which is to say, we had the pandemic. It was catastrophic in lots of ways. We saved all your jobs with the furlough. We had a good vaccine wall, as it were.
Well, no just we - Rishi Sunak personally, as chancellor.
Rishi Sunak became famous for the furlough. So we did that when you needed us. We've had the Ukraine war, the aftershocks of the pandemic with inflation. Again, you needed us because energy prices were... we were there for you.
And, now, we've got to fill up the bank account again. We've got to get the money back that we spent on you, and we are better at doing this. So it's not about gratitude. It's about saying, I know there's been all kinds of chaos in this Parliament - Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, all kinds of things.
But, actually, if you pair it back to the essentials, the things that affected you in your day to day, we, the government, were there for you when you needed us, and now we're going to restore the bank account. And that's why, in a way, I think talking...
Well, that is, as you say, that is a traditional Tory pitch, right?
And it works, often.
That is often what you're selling the voters.
Yeah. And I think one of the reasons why I thought the tax cut that he announced in the Autumn Statement was possibly a mistake was because it won't feel like enough to people. And you were better off saying, we are still trying to restore the public finances. That's what Conservatives do. We restore the public finances. We are in the business of that.
And the truth about the tax cuts and this argument... I just feel people are not going to be feeling better off by the time of the election, even if this helps. Inflation is still going up. Prices aren't falling, as we know. Inflation is still rising. Food inflation is even higher.
Real household disposable income will be down 3.5 per cent over the course of the Parliament. Everybody is feeling poorer. The fact they're feeling a little less poorer isn't really going to do the job.
This 2 pence off national insurance is worth £450 per average working person.
So that's what you're bargaining on as a sort of pre-election bribe.
No, I don't think they are. I think there's more.
Well, OK, but let's just discuss the timing, though, because, in fact, this tax cut, which normally would be left to happen in the spring from the new tax year, they're bringing it forward to January, right? So this boost will be from the new year.
So this has led a lot of people to say, OK, maybe, as you say, Robert, there will be a subsequent spring budget with the real pre-election tax bribe in it. But it's still setting them up to election-ready, don't you think?
So there's been some chat about the plan being ready to go in the spring if it looks like an opportune moment and if the polls start to narrow, which is if Labour's lead comes down.
There's no question that introducing this early is about giving themselves the wiggle room to go in May. It doesn't mean they will, but it means they have a... but even if they don't, then it's still been feeding through for longer when they go in October, say. The political impact of this is going to wear off really, really quickly...
Yeah, I agree.
...particularly on Rishi Sunak's own backbenches. And going back to where we were at the beginning in terms of setting out the stall, I think people are going to start seeing that it's not... they're not working. They're still losing the election.
And the pressure on Jeremy Hunt to find more ways to have tax cuts will be substantial. There is one argument, by the way, pointing you towards a spring election, which is he could just announce them and not actually have to implement them. I think he...
So that would be buttressing the stick with us, the economy's turned a corner, and there's more largesse to come...
...if you stick with us, stick with the Tories.
But I just don't think the 2p alone can hold, which is a problem because he spent all the money he's got to spend. And, in fact, as we know, they've left this enormous, toxic parcel for the Labour party or whoever's next.
I wanted to come on to that because forecasts for growth in the economy overall have been revised down. So that's not going to be helping him if they wait for an election in the autumn next year.
Although we know that the forecasts are...
Often, often wrong, yeah. But you've alluded to something really significant, which is to afford even these moderate tax cuts means taking money out of the future budget of the public services, and potentially leaving a real mess for the Labour party to try and clear up. And that means any non-protected departments, and even the NHS, which traditionally has been protected, to some extent, will not be able to cope, for example, with even a reduced rate of inflation.
So it really is borrowing from the public sector. How does that work electorally? Do they think people won't notice that that's what they've done?
Well, I mean... and, also, the other point is that this period of relative austerity - they're taking money out of the public sector, effectively, in real terms - when the Conservatives did it when he was prime minister, they were doing it off the back of a Labour government, which had spent quite a lot. Now, things are really pared back, and it's very, very difficult.
And I do wonder if this is going to feel quite so clever by the new year if, for example, we have a bad winter in the NHS. The precedence...
Can I give you an example - yeah, exactly - law and order, tough on crime, apart from when Tony Blair brilliantly borrowed that as a strength for his party, has traditionally been a really good pitch to the voters for the Conservatives. One of the pinch points in the public services is that the courts and the legal system and the prisons are so overloaded that they're actually having to advise the courts to let prisoners out.
How does this work with a traditional Tory pitch, if you are cutting public services to the bone, that that's the real-world outcome?
I agree. I think that's a real problem, particularly on your law and order argument, when you're also introducing legislation - one of Suella Braverman's last acts - legislation to increase sentences for certain types of offenders. And at the same time...
To put them where? I mean...
Exactly. It's a real problem, especially when, potentially, you're running against Mr officially, my job was to lock people up, the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service. So I don't think that's a good position to be in. And I just feel that the fabric of public services is going to be a central issue at the election. And that's never good for the Conservatives. Normally, good for Labour.
The problem then comes immediately afterwards, when people expect the public services to improve, and you have a Labour party with no money to spend. It's not going to be a great post-election period, almost regardless.
So you think it's actually as much of a problem for the Labour party, anyway.
I do, but I also think it's a problem for them before the election because, actually, I don't think they can spend a year... I mean, fundamentally, after the Autumn Statement, Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, accepted his two big...
Yes, that's true.
...tax measures. She accepted his business tax cuts, and she accepted the cut to national insurance. So, OK, fine. That's money she hasn't got to spend on public services or anything else. They're so focused on not falling into Tory traps now. I'm not falling into the trap of opposing this tax cut... that they're not focused enough on the Tory trap after the election, which is all a little bit closer.
She goes, well, OK, you say things are going to get better. How are you going to do this? And I think Labour will not get through the next period without saying something about how it is either going to fund improvements or make cuts.
So, apparently, Lord Cameron - returned to government - his favourite phrase to point out to people if the conversation about policy is becoming too highfalutin, he likes to say to people, well, what's that got to do with the price of fish? Which brings us back to our market stall because, surely, if you want to talk about retail politics, what you're selling the voters, their local hospital, the state of whether they can get a GP appointment, et cetera. This really matters.
Yes. And when we talk about people feeling better off, it isn't just straightforward economic measures. It is also things like the quality of my life as experienced through public services, the things I rely on. And, of course, the less money you have, the more likely you are to rely more heavily on public services.
The difficulty they've got and one of the reasons they're struggling so much to set out their stall is because they don't have answers to these very, very basic questions. And we're in a particular point in the economic cycle that simply doesn't serve them well, regardless of some of the crises that they've had to deal with.
OK, so to take you back to Rishi Sunak and his main pitch to remain as prime minister, during the period around the Tory party conference earlier in the autumn, we had a whole bunch of bright ideas from Rishi Sunak, which was part of this I am the change candidate. Now, this is... honestly, what is this, Miranda? This is supposed to be a bright idea.
A light bulb.
A light bulb... look, his light-bulb moment. So an example of that would be I'm the change candidate. I want to transform Britain. I'm going to focus on maths in schools and make everyone learn more maths. A couple of the other ideas were phasing out smoking in all young people.
Those are still there in the background, but again they don't seem core to the idea of what you're selling people on the doorstep. And we've discussed how the economic programme has massive flaws in it. What else are they selling? And I would say, to take us back to Sunak's pledges, they have promised to, as they put it, stop the boats.
They've promised to reduce immigration... specifically, in that pledge, illegal immigration. But, actually, we've seen in recent days a huge upsurge even in legal migration to the UK. This gives the governing party a huge problem. They effected Brexit, which means that immigration is now down to...
They control it.
...the government of the day. They control it, and people feel it's not under control. Isn't that the biggest problem of all for them?
I think it's a really big problem. I mean, so, number one, we know that a lot of the big numbers in the legal migration figures come from Hong Kong and Ukraine, these ones that are beginning to fade away, and the numbers... and the OBR, for example, has the numbers falling back quite considerably over - I can't remember how many years - back to 150,000 a year.
Secondly, the ONS figures did actually suggest it's beginning to taper down but from a very high number. So there's a couple of things there. But the problem is they've talked up, and they've played immigration so hard, partly out of fear of Nigel Farage and the Reform UK party, who made such a big issue on...
Yeah, look, we can say they're... look, there they are hovering, hovering.
...pointing at him... partly because of fear on the right that this is an issue that they can't be seen to fail and also because thousands of people arriving on the beaches doesn't suggest you've got control of the immigration system. So they do need to show...
But that is key, isn't it? Control... demonstrating control, particularly post-Brexit, what is the one historic change that the Conservative party in 13 years has made to the UK? Leaving the European Union...
...which was supposed to deliver control over the borders.
So you're on the hook for what happens now. But, equally, the illegal arrivals - that's one thing. But the legal migration is actually what's really agitating many of the Conservatives now. And they've got to address some points in this, which is, well, OK, you could cut this back, if you like. Who's going to run your social care system, which is badly underpaid and people don't want to work in?
How are you going to get people discharged from hospitals freeing up beds, if there's no social care workforce to look after them in their own homes?
What are you going to do with your university sector, given how increasingly reliant it is upon overseas students? It's all very well to take the easy position on immigration, but there are some follow-up questions they don't have any answers to, certainly not in the short and medium term. It's all very well to say, well, we're going to train up our indigenous population to all go and work in the social care sector. But, A, it's not clear they want to. B, wages are better working at a shop or a call centre. And, C, it takes ages to do.
So, on that topic, I'm interested in what you think about the personnel change from Braverman to James Cleverly at the Home Office because the buck actually now stops with Cleverly in terms of this immigration pledge and the wider immigration issue. Now, Braverman, obviously, very popular on the right of the Conservative But you're talking about the electorate. Do you think a slightly different tone of voice from James Cleverly might help?
Suella Braverman. What she was saying may well have appealed to a lot of the voters that the Conservative party fears losing on the leave side. But the problem was she was also not succeeding. Now, her argument would be, I wasn't succeeding because Rishi Sunak wouldn't let me. Nonetheless, she was failing. She was drawing attention to the failures, and there was no way through it. So there was no way that she was working out.
James Cleverly. He's loyal. He's a bit more moderate. He's a more affable figure. On the other hand, the problem hasn't changed. And if it was an easy problem to solve, it would have been solved.
I mean, actually, I suspect one of the consequences of what Rishi Sunak says is he's probably killed James Cleverly's hopes of becoming Conservative party leader because the Home Office is not easy to get to the top from at the best of times. And, certainly, now, in the Conservative party, if he spends the next year trying to hold the line against leaving the European Convention of Human Rights or blocking measures which are, in fact, not workable but, nonetheless, he's seen to be blocking them, that doesn't work out for him.
And they've got a massive, massive problem. And, also, the country has a problem because the danger of immigration as an issue, as a corrosive political issue, particularly on the right. Therefore, they do have to have some answers, some kind of story to tell. And, at the moment, they're still flailing around very badly.
OK, I want to take you onto slightly different territory, which is local politics which can swing marginal constituencies because there hasn't been very much from the Conservatives on - since Sunak took over - housing, trying to be tough on defenders of local countryside, Nimbys, in the jargon, and insisting that the country needs more houses. This, for local Tory campaigns, is something where house building tends to be resisted. It's actually become quite a central plank of Keir Starmer's pitch since conference season. We will build more houses.
What is going on that the Tory party neither really, over conference season, in the King's Speech, or in the Autumn Statement, seemed to have much for young people, for people who are locked out of the housing market because of the price of housing? What is going on there? Have they basically written off this part of the voting public - the younger, less affluent, more insecure renters? Do they just not have a policy answer, or do they think it doesn't matter?
The thing is, they don't have a policy. They haven't exactly written them off. They know this is a problem. They know they've got to do something about it. But they can't figure out the way through.
Their voting base is much older. They've got their own homes, many of them. Many of them have homes that they don't want to lose value because our homes are being built nearby. And loads and loads of Conservative MPs have scuppered chances to reform the planning system in a way that allows housing to be built.
I mean, Boris Johnson tried to do this, and the Tory MPs revolted against him. So it's not that they don't see the problem. It's that they can't see the way through in the current climate. If they were sailing ahead in the polls, untouchable, I think they'd defy some of their people. But, at the moment, they can't.
I mean, Keir Starmer has leapt on this. And it is an astonishing thing for the Tory party to abdicate their position as the party of the homeowner.
It's a very strange... I have said, I think Keir Starmer will struggle to drive it through just as much as Rishi Sunak. We're already beginning to see Labour MPs defying him in local planning issues and local planning disputes, so it's much easier..
Well, it's much easier...
...to figure out at an aerial level than on the ground.
And it's much easier in opposition, in theory, to say, if you make me prime minister I will overrule even my own people at local level to get these houses built. Whereas, in power the Conservative party have found it's almost impossible to do that. But it does leave them this electoral problem, which is those who feel locked out economically and who, therefore, don't have a stake.
And, historically, we've always understood that the Tory voter base is built of people who feel they have a stake, they are doing OK, but also they have hopes of material progression in life. And a whole bunch of people are locked out.
You're not going to be a capitalist if you've got no capital. Opposition parties, whoever they are - at the moment, they're Labour, but, in the future, it could be the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats - they go after planning at a local level - at by-elections, at councils - and they play on people's Nimby concerns.
So the truth is a deep cynicism in the electoral politics of all parties is working against the need to get things done and get things built.
OK. And just, lastly, infrastructure.. here is our high-speed train, and here is our steam-built HS2.
When it was first planned.
Yes. So goodbye HS2, right? It's been taken off the table by Rishi Sunak. So that has gone. And, instead, we've got... we haven't got a car. I'm going to have to quickly draw a car. Instead, we've got Rishi Sunak, champion of the motorist.
Or the bowler hat.
...or the bowler hat. Look, it's a motor car with emissions. It's a motor car with emissions. That seems to be quite a central pitch...
It's about to run off the board.
...as well. So on...
So if you're running your market stall, Rishi Sunak wants you to think, OK, we're also on your side when you put your produce back in your van and drive off.
Is that a good electoral calculation, do we still think? Because it was looking like a good electoral calculation after the Uxbridge by-election where ultra-low emission zone in London proved to be quite unpopular, locally. Is this really, again, a pitch for the future?
No. A, it's not. B, I'm not sure it was quite as popular, even in Uxbridge, which the Conservatives were meant to hold. So, OK, they just held on here. So I think you could read too much into it.
I think there was an argument. Lots of people talk about the war on the motorists, as Conservative newspapers like to call it. And they talk about 20-mile-an-hour zones and Ulezes and such things like that. And there is an antagonism that they're tapping into. There's something going on there.
But it's not a general election issue. It's mood music for a general election. People vote in general elections, as we've been saying, the economy, public ser.vices These are the kind of things that really determine it. And the car... it's just a bit of a vibe. It's not the whole thing, whereas infrastructure is. Where are the things that make our country function?
It's all very well for Jeremy Hunt to put lots of money into business investment. But if you're not building the infrastructure that businesses want, it's a problem. And one of the things that wasn't heavily noticed in the budget was, to fund all these other things, they cut the capital spending of departments. So, actually, infrastructure is going down. So I think it's not a great position for the Conservatives to be in, at all.
OK. Well, we've set out the Tory stall for them...
Yep, at the moment.
...for the moment.
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If you like Sketchy Politics, do please like and subscribe, and stick with us to the election. And, Robert, I've got something for you. I've got 2p from Jeremy Hunt. Please be careful. Don't spend it all at once because we don't want it to be inflationary.
2p or not 2p?