Off to the races

The slow motion car crash continues


“It’s not coffee!” a Conservative aide moved swiftly to intercept me as I prepared to pour myself a drink at her party’s manifesto launch. “It says it’s coffee, but it’s hot water.” Truly, if the Tories were struggling to provide beverages to struggling writers, they were at least falling over themselves to offer metaphors.

There wasn’t a race car in sight

We were at Silverstone, home of the British Grand Prix, where rich people go round in circles and periodically crash. A place where the wheels come off with unbelievable speed. Where everyone periodically goes into the pits. And don’t even ask about the Conservative poll position.

In the early days of the election campaign, the assumption was that this sort of error — visiting the yard where the Titanic was built, releasing a broadcast with the flag upside down — were signs that Tory officials simply weren’t very good at this sort of thing. But we’re now at the point where we need to consider the possibility that it’s deliberate, that the party is trying to lose the election by as large a margin as possible.

Why, we can only guess. Perhaps ministers know that some terrible disaster is heading toward the country and they want to get as far away as possible. Perhaps someone’s rich uncle left a will with some very strange conditions.

The choice of Silverstone was supposed to be symbolic. But of what? The launch itself was fully in the British political tradition of taking prime ministers to interesting places and then making them stand in front of a backdrop that you brought with you, so that it looks like they’re in a room in London. There wasn’t a race car in sight.

The reason became clear when the prime minister spoke. “There’s nowhere better to mark the fact that our economy has turned a corner,” he began. I’m all in favour of going to some trouble to make a joke work, but this one didn’t feel it was worth the half hour I’d just spent sitting on a bus from Milton Keynes station.

The morning had begun with Sunak accidentally tweeting, and then rapidly deleting, what was clearly a rejected warm-up video for the day’s launch. As one of the very few people who caught it, I can confirm it contained several bold editing choices, including the upside-down flag — again — and several shots of a rain-soaked prime minister in Downing Street. I suppose we should be grateful it didn’t show him holding a veteran’s head under the water at Normandy.

The manifesto, when we got our hands on it, had a foreword written by Sunak — though there was little in it that a rival party leader couldn’t have signed off — an opening chapter snappily titled “Bold actions to deliver a secure future for our country and for your family”, and then a series of other chapters whose title each began “Our plan to …” The intention was probably to emphasise how many plans the party has. The effect was that the first letters on the contents page spelled out: “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”

Sunak was introduced by Ben Houchen, the last remaining Conservative in local government. “This is a man who absolutely cares about this country,” he told us, a reassurance that people don’t usually feel they need to give about prime ministers. “He doesn’t stop halfway,” he went on, although people working on high-speed lines to Manchester have alternative perspectives. Labour had no plan for government, Houchen said, and if they got in, it would be “absolute Armageddon”.

He had, we would later realise, moved us towards the party’s big problem, but it was Sunak who would get us the rest of the way.

The prime minister’s speech apparently looked better on TV than it felt in the room, where there was a low-energy vibe. The Cabinet were in the front rows, clapping away and, in some cases, wondering how quickly they would be able to get back to their constituencies to try to save their seats. Penny Mordaunt didn’t seem to be there at all.

You won’t believe how fast the wheels come off.

“This manifesto is our clear plan for our United Kingdom,” Sunak told them. “It is about the bold actions we will take to deliver that secure future.” But what are they? Tax cuts from a party that has raised taxes to record levels? Increases in defence spending from the people who cut it? As Sunak complained about a “bloated” civil service, immigration that was “too high” and a shortage of domestic energy generation, the inescapable thought was: who has been in charge? When Houchen had warned that a Labour government would be chaos, was he asking us to believe it would be worse that the last decade?

There was a section of the speech where Sunak tried to reckon with this, carefully listing things that had gone well. He gave credit to “David” for “difficult but necessary decisions” on public spending, to “Home Secretaries from Theresa to Priti to James” for cutting carefully specified crimes, and to “Boris and Ben and Grant” for leading support for Ukraine. Has the country had other prime ministers? Other Home Secretaries? Had Boris’s or Theresa’s or David’s or what’s-her-name’s time in office been memorable in other ways? Sadly, there wasn’t time to go into that.

Labour MPs sometimes, when feeling low, like to play the section of Gordon Brown’s 2009 conference speech where, over a rising tide of cheers, he lists his government’s achievements, from the minimum wage to civil partnerships to falling NHS waiting times. If in the future you find a Tory watching Sunak’s speech, please intervene and point them to something more cheerful, like the final scenes of Million Dollar Baby or The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

“I am not blind to the fact that people are frustrated with our party, and frustrated with me,” Sunak went on. “Things have not been easy and I have not always got everything right.” But, he repeated, he had big ideas. And again we thumbed the manifesto, wondering where in it these might be hidden.

When the questions came, he avoided, as ever, selecting journalists from hostile newspapers. But even so, things were bad, and he looked increasingly cross. “Nothing works,” one reporter said, speaking on behalf of her listeners. “Of course I want to see high quality services,” the prime minister snapped back. “But as a Conservative I don’t want to see people’s taxes go up.”

He says he doesn’t want to, but he has. It says it’s coffee, but it’s not. You won’t believe how fast the wheels come off.

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