Please look after this bear

A bedraggled Rishi Sunak chases the pity vote


Oh, the humiliation! Soaked to the skin, inaudible over music from protestors, Rishi Sunak plumped for the one electoral strategy he had left: the appeal for a pity vote. Even the weather hates me, he was telling us. Couldn’t you at least do me the kindness of an X on a ballot paper?

What ended as a waterlogged mess on the Downing Street pavement had begun, as so many of these things seem to, as a bold strategic stroke. On Wednesday morning, rumours began to swirl that the prime minister had something planned. Inflation was down! The Cabinet had been summoned! The King was on standby! Seize the moment! Action this day!

There were so many imponderables

All afternoon we speculated and guessed. The key question when trying to predict Sunak’s course is always: “What would I do if I were really bad at politics?” What would be the daftest course? To stick with an October plan but let speculation build all afternoon? Or to grab onto a single good statistic and hope that you can turn “inflation is 2.3%” into an election-winning slogan?

There were so many imponderables. Would it be better to hold an “I’m stopping the boats” election against the background of daily boat arrivals? Would there be an advantage in hanging on another 72 days in order to have been prime minister longer than Anthony Eden?

In another part of town Paula Vennells, the former boss of the Royal Mail, was giving evidence about all the things she hadn’t known or been told about the staff prosecuted on her watch. She was, she began, “very, very sorry,” and she looked like she meant it. She hadn’t wanted to send innocent people to prison and drive others to despair and suicide. She’d just wanted to be paid large sums for a job that was beyond her. Modern capitalism throws up such people all the time, and most of them get away with it, failing ever upwards, convinced that their success is no more than they deserve, never getting found out.

Although, of course, some of them are. Which brings us back to Sunak. Wednesday will probably have been his last appearance answering Prime Minister’s Questions. Even then he was upstaged, though he can’t have begrudged a moment of celebration for South Thanet’s Craig Mackinlay, back in place after having all his limbs amputated to save him from sepsis. As the MP walked in, balanced on bionic legs, in shirtsleeves because he couldn’t get his jacket over his new robot arms, the entire House of Commons rose to applaud him. It was an expression of wholehearted warmth for a colleague many had feared would never return. It would be eclipsed from the bulletins by the election, but those of us who were there won’t forget it.

The SNP’s Stephen Flynn had asked Sunak directly whether he was about to call an election, and the prime minister’s smile as he gave an evasive reply was a big clue that something really might be up. By lunchtime people were revising their evening plans. TV crews were taking their spots in Downing Street. And, apparently unknown to the brilliant people advising the prime minister, both protestors and weather systems were preparing for their big moment.

It was impossible to think about anything else. Was it on? Calendars were consulted. Spouses and partners were put on alert to cancel holidays. Aides began calling journalists, explaining that Rishi could turn everything around in the short campaign. People would look at him and look at Keir Starmer. There was a “tiny path” to victory. Somewhere behind closed doors, a speechwriter was putting the finishing touches to remarks that were a bit too long, a bit too unfocused.

Was anyone looking at the weather map? Out of the window? You can understand why anyone would think that an announcement in the clearly cursed Allegra Stratton Memorial Briefing Suite was too much of a risk. The argument for doing it in the street is that the photos are good, but that stops being true when the photos are pitiful.

Rumours swirled that panicked Tory MPs were trying to remove the prime minister before he could get to the Palace. His decision to make his big pitch to the nation from the inside of a car wash is unlikely to have allayed their fears.

The rain was falling hard now, the camera lights reflecting off a jacket that was now more liquid than solid

His argument was, essentially, I gave you furlough, please give me your votes. He took us back to the happy days of lockdown, when he was one of the most popular men in the country. “Who would have thought the government would ever tell us how many times a day we could leave our homes?” he recalled, failing to add that key members of the same government had at the time been partying until they threw up.

“I came to office, above all, to restore economic stability,” he went on, again without going into the detail of how, exactly the economy had come to be unstable 12 years into a Conservative government.

But his statement wasn’t going to be remembered for its words. Indeed we could barely hear them. They were drowned out by music from beyond the gates: the 1997 Labour anthem, Things Can Only Get Better. Drowning was the theme. The rain was falling hard now, the camera lights reflecting off a jacket that was now more liquid than solid. This, too, is an image that will live long in the memory.

Could it work? As he turned to walk back into 10 Downing Street, water running in tiny streams down the back of a now-ruined suit that probably cost more than most of our summer holidays, did the country feel a sense that this is at least a man who will stand in the rain begging for our support?

Elsewhere, indoors, Starmer was recording his own election appeal: “Stop the chaos.” They were both, in the words of Richard Curtis, just men, standing in front the electorate, asking it to love them. But at least one of them had noticed it was raining.

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