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By Bishop of Leeds
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The Conservatives must get their act together to avoid electoral wipeout

(Alamy)

3 min read

Rishi Sunak says he has a plan to win the next election, labelling it: long-term decisions for a brighter future. He emphasises three things: change, making ‘hard’ choices, and creating wedge issues.

It sounds ok on paper, but as Mike Tyson famously said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The PM may want to talk about the long-term – but he’s only got a year to persuade people he’s providing something fresh when the reality is the Conservatives have been in power a long time and voters’ patience has been tested to destruction. To many, what Sunak claims are ‘hard’ choices really sounds like yet more cheap campaigning. 

To many, what Sunak claims are ‘hard’ choices really sounds like yet more cheap campaigning

Not everyone in his team has received the memo about demonstrating grip and purpose. 
The school concrete fiasco was more damaging than most people realise. The Education Secretary did Labour’s job for it, presenting herself as a real-life character from The Thick of It – sweary, entitled and devoid of ideas and empathy. 

Gillian Keegan should have been told to come straight out of the traps, explaining there was a problem, that she sympathised with the concern it would cause, and telling voters she would not rest until it was resolved. Instead, she waited days and then left the impression she was a dispirited general at the fag end of an exhausted administration. 

Recent polling by FGS Global shows the depth of the hole the Conservative Party finds itself in. Nearly four-fifths of people said they felt the country is going through a period of decline. Only a fifth of people described themselves as optimistic about the country’s future. Just a third of people said they felt clear on the Conservative Party’s policies. All this may mean people have simply stopped listening and giving the benefit of the doubt.

The one glimmer of hope for the Tories is that there is little enthusiasm for Labour. It’s true they have been 20 points clear in the polls for more than a year – but the support is soft, more anti-Conservative than pro-Labour.

In following a small-target strategy of saying little and doing less, Labour could be opening itself to a potent line of attack. This is where Sunak may be onto something. Not so long ago Labour was trying to persuade us that a revolutionary socialist should be prime minister. Keir Starmer told the BBC in February 2019: “I think Jeremy Corbyn would make a great prime minister”. If he thought that then, and won’t be clear about what he wants to do now, why should we trust him with power?

But that line of attack only works if the Conservative Party is able to persuade voters they are the real grown-ups in the room. Sunak’s record on this is mixed at best. 

I’m not holding my breath. Too often communications are conducted with the mindset of a leader of a children’s gang, shouting across the playground, “You smell!” I roll my eyes almost daily when I see childish stunts like writing letters addressed to Keir Starmer or the leader of Just Stop Oil.

Can the Conservatives win the next election? Yes – but it’s a slim chance, relying on them getting their act together, staying disciplined and really delivering, not just trying to score cheap points. 

Whether or not they deserve to win after the chaos of the last few years is another question entirely. 

 

Craig Oliver, former Downing Street director of politics and communications

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Read the most recent article written by Craig Oliver - It’s all over for Rishi Sunak

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