Behind the sofa government

Current Tory strategy consists in hiding and hoping the voters don’t notice the mess


Where were you when you heard that Simon Clarke — sorry, Sir Simon Clarke — had called for Rishi Sunak to resign? Crowding round a television set in a shop window, desperate for updates? Crouched next to your wireless, anxious to hear if Kwasi Kwarteng too had demanded the prime minister quit?

As a self-confessed agoraphobic, he would be an interesting choice for prime minister in an election year

It was a magnificent moment. The length of the nation, people turned to one another and asked: “Who’s Simon Clarke? Sorry, Sir Simon Clarke. But who is he?”  To which the answer was, of course, “he’s the very tall one who was Levelling Up Secretary for a few weeks in 2023”.

Was this a leadership bid, we all wanted to know? Clarke denied it, and as a self-confessed agoraphobic, he would be an interesting choice for prime minister in an election year. Though if ever there was a year when a Conservative leader didn’t need to worry about being mobbed by crowds of well-wishers, this is surely it.

Actually, it turned out to be the next stage in the ongoing development of Hot Dog Toryism, the habit of pointing to things the government has smashed up and asking loudly why they no longer work. Until now, this has largely been something that Conservative MPs did to the rest of us. Now they’re doing it to each other. Why are the Tories polling so badly, asked a man who was given a knighthood for his loyalty to Boris Johnson and who then campaigned for Liz Truss. It’s a mystery, isn’t it? We’re all just trying to find the guys who did this.

Clarke’s dramatic intervention came in the Telegraph, in an article accompanied by a piece of polling so mad that I briefly wondered if it was satirical. Voters were asked whether they would prefer Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer, or a mysterious third candidate who had reduced both legal and illegal immigration while also cutting taxes and NHS waiting times.

And the results were, to be fair, clear: to win the next election, all the Tories need to do is install a leader who will, in the next six months, visibly improve public services while spending less money. Would it help if this person — who, remember, must be one of the 349 people currently sitting on the Tory benches — could also heal lepers with a touch, compose hit singles, and turn base metals into gold? The poll didn’t say, but let’s assume it would.

It’s not clear who’s funding all this polling. It’s rumoured to be a mysterious Tory-backing millionaire, though a more sophisticated take would be that it’s a Labour-backing millionaire.

If your big boast is that you are getting on with clearing up the mess your own government made, you are going to struggle at the polls

Certainly Keir Starmer made the most of it at Prime Minister’s Questions. He began by accusing Sunak of “collapsing in laughter” when a voter asked about waiting lists. This claim, based on a viral video clip that cut much of the prime minister’s response, was almost Johnsonian in its unfairness. But Starmer wants to win, and doesn’t mind playing rough to do it. When Conservative MPs howled with outrage, it became clear that he’d set a trap.

“I love this quaint tradition,” he observed of Sunak’s backers, “where the more they slag him off behind his back, the louder they cheer him here.”

Sunak isn’t above his own mudslinging. He said the Labour leader was “the man who takes the knee, who wanted to abolish the monarchy, and who still does not know what a woman is.”

Starmer had delivered a decent line, borrowing a little from Tony Blair: “I have changed my party; he is bullied by his party.” Later on, the Labour MP Tahir Ali, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, accused the prime minister of having “the blood of thousands of innocent people on his hands”. Starmer had sat stony-faced through this, and Sunak exploited this discomfort with a brief retort: “That is the face of the changed Labour party.” (The actual face of the changed Labour Party is that Ali had apologised for his language within three hours, presumably after the Labour whips had tracked him down.)

But the bulk of Starmer’s attack was the technique he uses every week, because every week it works. He asks about some part of the public realm that isn’t working — this time it was childcare — waits for Sunak to say that actually things are going terrifically well, and then accuses the prime minister of being out of touch. We laugh because it’s funny, and we laugh because it’s true.

Sunak had a response to that, too: “Things are improving and we are making progress.” More than that: “inflation has more than halved!” And this, inadvertently, answered Simon Clarke’s — sorry, Sir Simon Clarke’s — question. If you have been in government for fourteen years, and your big boast is that you are getting on with clearing up the mess your own government made, you are going to struggle at the polls. Sir Simon! —Good news! We’ve found the guys who did this.

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