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Sunak’s strategy makes Starmer the real election issue

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Politicians and pundits like patterns. So we see an embattled government after 13 years in power and debate whether the next election will mirror that of 1992, 1997 or 2010. Our choice points us to a likely outcome. But elections have no true precedent. Each is its own unique and constantly shifting event, which in the words of Robert Harris’s Cicero, “wriggle and turn and run off in directions no one has ever predicted, sometimes just for the joy of proving the wiseacres wrong”.

Rishi Sunak confronts a party expecting election defeat next year — and since defeatism in your own ranks is the surest path to such an outcome, his first challenge has been to offer them a reason to believe the contest still offers some of that wriggle room. 

Their pessimism is logical. But there is a crumb of comfort in the new polling data presented to Keir Starmer’s team. Labour strategists were told that while 79 per cent of voters answered yes to the question “Does the country need a change from the Conservative party?”, the figure fell to 37 per cent when people were asked if the country needed a change to Labour. In the gap is Sunak’s opportunity.

The prime minister’s strategists believe he must persuade voters that he is the change they seek. The need for bold strokes was clear. Voters had pigeonholed Sunak as simply the latest Tory leader — not giving a hearing to his hopes of wooing them with quiet competence. Conference week was less about the decisions he took — many of which were not actually that tough — than the need to capture attention.

That the change he offers is pitched as a break with a broken and failed politics is, of course, an indictment of his predecessors. Moreover, his pledge of a new style of politics would have epic chutzpah, were it not such a cliché. But the Tories have previously found success in such reinvention. By scrapping a major rail project and paring back net zero targets, Sunak believes he is demonstrating his boldness, even if his conference slogan, “long-term thinking for a brighter future” sounds like it was stolen from a life assurance company. 

Some of his announcements — such as the ban on youth smoking and an A-levels rehaul — are striking and sensible, but given the proximity of the election, most will remain just that. And there was nothing on big challenges such as housing or social care. There is, though, something very parochial about what is essentially a core vote strategy. The dividing lines drawn have been on the subjects of motorists, trans rights, immigration and the direction of funds towards towns over cities. Sunak may be addressing real concerns, but banging on about the “war on motorists” make him sound more like a minor opposition party than the premier of a G7 nation.

Pulling disillusioned voters back into the Tory column is essential, but a core vote strategy will not be enough. And this perhaps is the clue to what Team Sunak really sees as the central election issue. The country appears to have decided it no longer wants the Tories. What it has not yet concluded is that it wants the alternative. For all the focus on the cost of living, the NHS or immigration, the pivotal and as yet unsettled question will be the voters’ view of Starmer.

Sunak’s framing of the debate is that his is the party of common sense, one that stands against Labour ideologues peddling social and environmental policies that normal households cannot afford and do not support. Conservatives will prey on voters’ doubts over Starmer and his many shifts in position. Their attack line — that the Labour leader will say whatever is necessary to win — has demonstrable power. 

Starmer’s personality and political instincts will be placed at the centre of debate and ferociously tested. Once the election comes, Conservative strategists will push for multiple TV debates in the belief they can expose their rival. After 13 years, the Tories cannot really be the change party, so their real message is about Labour. It warns: be careful of the change you seek.

This idea still needs refining. Sunak must decide whether Labour is dangerously leftwing or drearily status quo. Will it be enough to keep the Tories in office? Probably not. But it could limit the scale of defeat and condemn Labour to a messy minority government.  

This is why next week’s Labour conference in Liverpool is the most crucial of the season. It will offer the first true glimpse of what is meant to be the third leg of Starmer’s strategy. Having detoxified his party of Corbynism and (with considerable help from the government) made the case against the Tories, he must now answer the question “why Labour?” That means persuading voters that Labour shares their core values and ambitions for Britain. Part of his pitch will be that his is the party that offers voters both respect and self-respect. But he must also find a way to instil hope. 

Sunak has found a song for his followers to sing, one that will claw back at least some lost voters and perhaps induce errors from his opponents. Starmer’s ability to convince the electorate that his values are also theirs is now the determining variable in the coming battle.

Successful oppositions do not wait for power to be handed over. They take it. If the Labour leader’s character is to be the central issue at the next election, Starmer must settle that question to his advantage before the Conservatives answer it for him. To Liverpool.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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