You wouldn’t mind playing poker against Rishi Sunak. He’s not a Theresa May, whose face would broadcast her horror as the dealer turned over a two rather than an ace, but he’s not impossible to read, either. His very determination to conceal his feelings leads to a hardening of his features when interviewers ask him questions he doesn’t like.
This doesn’t reflect terribly well on the people who’ve been in charge for the last decade.
He had to deploy it quite a lot on Sunday morning, as Laura Kuenssberg gave viewers their pound of prime ministerial flesh to mark the start of Tory conference in Manchester. He opened by talking about drivers. Sunak isn’t a petrolhead, and gave the impression that he’d only recently learned about the automobile from a briefing note. “Cars for most people are the form of transport that they rely on the most,” he explained to us, before declaring an end to the “war on motorists”.
Pressed about the precise terms of this peace deal, the prime minister eventually conceded it amounts to rather less than a plan to create a Mad Max-style free-for-all outside the nation’s primary schools. “What this is about is making sure that the statutory guidance that goes to local councils from government is clear,” he said, which was at one level a reassurance and at another level is not quite the impression you might have picked up from the weekend’s front pages.
As another great wartime leader might have put it, we shall ensure the statutory guidance is clear on the B-roads, we shall ensure the statutory guidance is clear on the A-roads, we shall never alter Section 87 of the Traffic Management Act (2004).
“Everyone wants safety for our children,” Sunak said, “but these things need to be done with consent.” This plea for local councils to seek a democratic mandate would have sounded better from someone who had one himself, of course, but we are where we are.
We got the first glimpse of the Sunak Poker Face when Kuenssberg reminded the prime minister that many of the things he was attacking had been introduced, either at a national or a local level, by members of his own party. He stiffened a little, as he generally does when people point out that if our politics is the unholy mess he says it is, this doesn’t reflect terribly well on the people who’ve been in charge for the last decade.
“I’m focused on doing what I believe is right for the country in the long term,” he told us, several times. It was helpful that he repeated this this, because as it happens the long-term decisions he’s taken in the national interest are exactly the same ones you’d make if you were 15 points behind in the polls and desperately hunting for anything that might give you a pre-election boost.
The other line that he kept repeating was how happy he is when people criticise him. “Look, I get that there’ll be criticism,” he told us. “I’m fine with it.” He really is. “It’s fine to criticise me, it’s fine to disagree.” You got that? He doesn’t mind criticism. Or critics. “I get that people will be critical of that, I’m OK with that.”
All the earnest sincerity of a man trying to make a pair of sixes look like a straight flush.
It was, again, enormously helpful that he kept saying this, because had he not told Kuenssberg quite so often how tremendously OK he was with people suggesting that the Conservatives in general and he in particular might not be doing a very good job, his face and body language might have left viewers thinking he was sick to the back teeth of her picky questions.
Towards the end of the interview Kuenssberg deployed her secret weapon, a word cloud that showed the public’s views of the prime minister. It was perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in politics since the one produced for Boris Johnson that just had “Liar” written across the middle in huge letters.
Sunak’s at least, didn’t say that. “Rich People,” it read, from top to bottom, “Himself”, then “Wealth” in smaller letters, an enormous “Rich”, and then “Money” and finally “The Rich”. To be fair, there were other words, too: “Don’t know” and “No idea” featured.
Sunak looked over at it for a microsecond before turning away, his face rigid with OKness at this criticism. He knows his wealth is a political problem. A couple of years back, his people briefed that he wasn’t really very interested in money, as though he’d only joined Goldman Sachs because he couldn’t get a place on a teacher training course.
“I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on everything,” he told Kuenssberg, again, “but people will have a clear idea of what I believe, what I stand for.” And, it seems, they do.
Elsewhere in the conference centre, we saw other poker faces. At the GB News stand, fears that their recent misadventures might have left them pariahs proved to be unfounded. Michael Gove was there, giving an interview. Some people have suggested that the channel is a safe space for creepy people, but Gove’s presence on screen will settle that question once and for all.
How, he was asked, would history judge Suella Braverman? “Thoughtful,” he replied, with all the earnest sincerity of a man trying to make a pair of sixes look like a straight flush.
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