Inside Politics: No good options left for Rishi Sunak

Good morning. I promised a more detailed set of thoughts on the local elections once all the results were in, and so that is the topic of today’s note. As a consequence, you’re all spared my grumbling about the Metropolitan Police’s policing of the coronation, for today at least.

That said, I feel certain that the topic will come back sooner rather than later. You can distract me by posing questions on other topics for the newsletter in the comments below, or egg me on via the same route.

Conservative conundrum

Robert Shrimsley has written the definitive take on what the results suggest about the next election: we are heading for a change of government, but whether that government will be Labour alone or Labour in alliance with some other party or parties is not wholly clear.

If the final 18 months of this parliament play out in line with the usual trends, then we are heading to an election that looks a lot like 2010, but with the roles reversed. In 2010, the Conservatives had clearly finished ahead of Labour in both votes and seats, but they hadn’t won quite enough seats to win a majority.

What are the reasons to think that trajectory might be broken? On the Conservative side, it is hard to see a plausible one. Ultimately the biggest problem for Rishi Sunak is that many of the public policy challenges he faces cannot be solved by the time of the next election. Sensible measures, such as increasing the power of pharmacists, can ease some pressure, but not immediately. And the big picture on wages and prosperity is that either we are about to enter a period of wage growth that would be the among the best the UK ever enjoyed, or the incumbent government is going to struggle politically.

On the Labour side, the reason to think it might surprise to the upside is that these local elections saw a huge amount of tactical voting between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, and that this will continue at the next election. I know whose shoes I would rather be standing in.

And as Robert notes, these results are so damaging to the narrative that Sunak’s allies have tried to paint, of a party on the way up with a good chance of winning the next election, that it increases the pressure on the PM from within his party, not for a change of leader but a change of direction:

For all the noises off from the dwindling and faintly ridiculous band of Johnson loyalists, there is no serious prospect of a challenge to Sunak’s leadership. But the demands for policy shifts he had managed to quell will pick up again. The most obvious issue will be demands for earlier action to cut taxes.

Iain Duncan Smith has sharply criticised Sunak’s China policy, while the PM is facing calls to make it easier to build houses from some backbench MPs, such as Simon Clarke, and to make it harder from others, like Theresa Villiers. There are calls to cut taxes and there are calls to deliver spending increases, sometimes from the same MPs.

On China, Sunak’s problem is much less acute: ultimately Duncan Smith is the most hawkish of the Conservative party’s Sinosceptics and for the moment there is no immediate danger there. In the long term, Sunak faces the challenge that he is pretty close to the European mainstream on China policy in a party that is becoming aligned with the US on the issue.

In the short term, the difficulty is everything else. Part of the problem is that all of Sunak’s critics are right, as I said on our podcast this week. Clarke is right that the areas that have moved towards the Conservative party are the ones that have built more homes. Security of tenure is still among the biggest predictors of a Tory vote.

But the likes of Villiers are right to say: if you build more housing in the south of England, the first people to buy it will be people from the inner cities who will mostly take their politics with them. A big part of the Conservative party’s problem in the south is that the UK has done a better job of building and modernising transport links than it has been at building houses. There is Crossrail increasing how far people can live from London and still work in the capital. There is electrification of some railways increasing the commutable area of many other Labour cities. And if you build more in Tory areas, the first buyers will be Labour voters moving out, who will either vote Liberal Democrat or Labour.

And it’s true, too, to say that some of the Tory coalition feels overtaxed and angry and some of it feels it needs more public money and is therefore angry. Whatever choice Sunak makes here is going to upset somebody.

Shameless self-promotion

My column in today’s paper is on the rows over casting Cleopatra and what it reveals about the global politics of race and ethnicity across the world.

Now try this

I saw How To Blow Up A Pipeline, a taut heist thriller that is inspired by the non-fiction book of the same name, at the cinema last night. It really is very good: not quite as good as The Cairo Conspiracy, my runaway choice for the year’s best thriller as it stands, but very good indeed.

If you can grab a showing while it is still screening this week, you should do so. Otherwise, we have an excellent interview with the film’s director here.

Top stories today

  • Blood money | The compensation bill for those affected by the NHS contaminated blood scandal could reach £10bn in a further blow to the UK’s stretched public finances.

  • Makers’ message | British manufacturers have called on ministers to stop “flip-flopping” and urgently draw up an industrial strategy, warning the absence of a long-term plan is holding back growth and damaging the UK’s competitiveness.

  • Transport troubles | Rail passengers face more disruption this week when two transport unions launch a new wave of strikes in a long-running dispute with the train operators and government.

  • Sewage smells | Britain’s privatised water and sewage companies paid £1.4bn in dividends in 2022, up from £540mn the previous year, according to FT analysis, despite rising household bills and a wave of public criticism over sewage outflows.

  • Moderate or die | Recent history demonstrates the need for Sunak’s Conservatives to rediscover moderation in time for the general election, writes Philip Stephens.

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