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Rishi Sunak’s spaghetti strategy

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First a confession. When news dribbled out at the weekend that Rishi Sunak was proposing a return to compulsory national service, my mind went immediately to a scene in a political satire where Conservatives sit cross-legged in a circle brainstorming absurd ideas for their manifesto. 

This was unworthy. For all the vagaries and missing detail, Sunak has at least an outline of a plan to tackle two different problems: the need for a larger military reserve and a desire to foster more social cohesion and a spirit of service among the young. Up to 30,000 volunteers would be offered a one-year military training while the rest would be required to spend one weekend a month on some form of compulsory community service.

Yet the cynical response is partly justified — not only because ministers were rubbishing the idea only a week earlier. If you really have a serious policy plan, rather than just another half-formed idea scraped from a Tory think-tank, an election is the worst time to unveil it to the public, particularly if it will ultimately need cross-party support. This is especially true when your own candidates — and ministers — are caught off guard and end up busking on the missing details.

Those who remember Theresa May’s disastrous 2017 election manifesto might feel that announcing major initiatives mid-election had been tested to destruction. Jeremy Corbyn’s ill-starred 2019 campaign also saw voters bombarded with policy ideas. But elections are not pasta kitchens. You do not win by plastering the wall with spaghetti in the hope that some of it sticks. More importantly, history shows it doesn’t much matter whether the idea is popular, if the people proposing it are not. 

Conservative strategists know this. Yet the first days of the campaign have seen Sunak firing out new ideas with the fervour of the Cat in the Hat — “and that is not all, oh no that is not all”. After the national service plan came a promise to cut taxes on the pensioners he had neglected in the last two Budgets. On Tuesday came a pledge to scrap one in eight university degrees.

Having overruled his campaign chief, who wanted a later contest, Sunak is running a strategy to match the prime minister’s self-image as a hard-working, bold, radical Tory, fizzing with innovations. Though this raises the question of whether voters actually attach the same value as politicians to ideas being “bold” or “radical”. As Keir Starmer has noted, people want a politics that “treads more lightly on their lives”.

All those decrying the Tory campaign so far need to hold one thing in mind, however. Yes, it would have been better if he had not stood in the rain for the launch. And there have been a couple of inept photo opportunities. But Sunak is fighting the campaign he intended. 

The week-one goal was to wrongfoot rivals, regain the public’s attention, show they still had fresh ideas after 14 years in office and — above all — pull back disgruntled supporters and start squeezing support for Reform UK. Looked at this way, it has been a decent start.

But the first days also tell us that the Tories are not even thinking of victory. The first target is averting a meltdown by getting Conservative support back towards 30 per cent by driving down the Faragist Reform vote and pulling back older voters.

The pensions promise is a pitch to the one cohort on whom they can traditionally rely. The national service idea appeals to both these groups. No matter (for now) that it is all a bit scattergun, that the former is only reversing one of Sunak’s tax rises, that the latter plan is decidedly sketchy or even that it should not be up to government which courses a university can offer. He does not expect to have to enact these measures. The focus is on rebuilding the core vote. On losing well.

This does not mean Sunak has given up all hope, just that he is realistic about the journey. In an ideal Conservative scenario, this is a two-stage campaign in which stabilisation of the base — even some momentum in the polls — is followed by Labour wobbles and the return of belief.

It remains a long shot. The country is clearly keen for a change. Sunak’s ratings are too negative for a presidential-style campaign. Most of his pledges so far do not address core voter concerns, especially on the NHS, and seem to play to prejudices against the young. The danger remains that shoring up the base often makes it harder to regain the centre — but that’s a problem for Tomorrow Sunak.

The other flaw in this approach is that Labour will be fairly untroubled by it. Conservative recovery ultimately depends on scaring voters about Starmer. Sunak is grabbing headlines but Labour is not yet rattled by the Tory attacks. As long as the Labour leader feels comfortable talking about the Conservative record and sticking with his big-picture, safety-first strategy — time for an unthreatening change — we will know the Tories are not breaking through to stage two of their campaign.

Even so, one should not mistake hopelessness for haplessness. Given his very limited options, Sunak is fighting the campaign he wanted to fight but is too far behind for it to be anything other than a salvage operation. If the spaghetti starts to stick, then the second half of the campaign may look very different. For now this still looks less a battle for power than a fight to ensure the Tories remain a viable opposition.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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