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Good morning. What will the Conservative election campaign be about? That’s a recurring topic of conversation at Westminster and the subject of Robert Shrimsley’s column this week. Some more thoughts on that in today’s note.
Confusion in Number 10?
Robert Shrimsley’s column is enjoyably waspish this week:
Having given the country three prime ministers in the space of four months, the Conservatives are now set for three election strategies in a year.
Those three strategies? “I am the change”, “Things are looking up, stay the course” and “You can’t trust Labour”. Rishi Sunak’s strategy of rebranding himself as the change option already looks to have been forgotten. It was only a little over a month ago that Sunak claimed he represented a breach with 30 years of political failure. Thus far, the extent of the breach is regulating London’s rickshaw trade, banning the under-16s from smoking forever, and running HS2 from London to Birmingham rather than London to Manchester.
Some of this is worthwhile, but none of it is the kind of thing that makes you sit up and go “wow, the Tories sure have changed”. So, Robert argues, the next move will be to point to the government’s progress in meeting Sunak’s pledges and to run on a “we’ve turned a corner, don’t let Labour set us back” campaign.
I slightly part ways with Robert here, in that his theory as to why this won’t stick in an election campaign is that, faced with stagnant polling, this approach too could fall away.
But I think that the “we’ve turned a corner” campaign is even less of a good idea. The government will miss some of Sunak’s five pledges, while those that are fulfilled will not resonate with most voters. Take Sunak’s inflation pledge, which he may well be able to say he has met. Most voters do not understand this pledge and they think that “halving inflation” means “prices and the cost of living go back to where they were”. A Conservative campaign saying it is “mission accomplished” on this front will make Sunak look like Marie Antoinette and if the Tory campaign sounds anything like that, it will be a disaster.
As a result, the party will surely end up with Robert’s third campaign: you can’t trust Labour. As he says, “what will the Conservative campaign major on?” is not just a talking point in Westminster. It reflects a real and important ambiguity at the heart of the Tory party:
At one level, electoral strategy is the definition of an inside-Westminster issue. But it also signals a lack of political clarity, the sign of a government still working out not only what it wants to say, but what it is trying to be.
In 2019, what the Conservative party wanted to be was incredibly clear: a home for as many Leave voters as possible. Its whole manifesto was shaped around winning these voters. There is no overarching sense of what the Tory party wants to achieve in a fifth term, other than keeping Labour out, and that is why, like Robert, I think that when push comes to shove, the dominant theme of the Conservative election campaign will be “keep Labour out”.
Now try this
It’s my wedding anniversary this weekend! (OK: it was my wedding anniversary on Tuesday, but you know, close enough.) We’re off for a long weekend. Given the shortness of the occasion we will be limited in what we can stream off my laptop, so I’m happy to report that Sideways, one of our shared favourites, is available on Disney+ in the UK. Don’t worry, though, Inside Politics will still be here but without me tomorrow and Monday. See you Tuesday and have a wonderful weekend, however you spend it.