Rishi goes a-wooin’

The Prime Minister was an extremely nervous suitor trying to impress some very sceptical rural in-laws


“HAHAHAHAHAHA!” Rishi Sunak was laughing. It was a nervous laugh, slightly too loud, the laugh of a young man meeting the girlfriend’s parents and anxious to make a good impression. Don’t worry about Daddy, he was assured the previous evening, he’s a sweetie. But Daddy turns out to be a wall of solid muscle, with hands like slabs of meat and a look in his eye that suggests he has thoughts about men who touch his daughter’s knee.

He would, let’s face it, make a terrific son-in-law

Perhaps Daddy is a farmer, someone hardened by a life fighting the elements, used to wrestling with machinery and animals, someone who owns shotguns and chainsaws and land where a corpse would never be found. On Tuesday morning, the prime minister faced a conference hall full of such men and women. It was hardly surprising he sounded a touch anxious.

The annual conference of the National Farmers Union hasn’t generally been a regular stop on the political circuit. The last prime minister to address it in person was Gordon Brown. Indeed last year Sunak simply sent a video message, and then found himself upstaged by Keir Starmer, who not only turned up but couldn’t have done more to woo his audience if he’d driven a combine harvester onto the stage before sticking his arm up a cow’s backside.

It turns out that farmers are in play, politically. There may be no other group of people in the country who can so precisely enumerate the gap between what Brexit promised them and what has happened to their bank accounts. And they have a new champion in Jeremy Clarkson, whose aggrieved tone as he attempts to navigate farming bureaucracy on his TV show has had a surprising consciousness-raising effect on the tractor-owning community, who have begun to wonder why they put up with the things they do. All this explains why polls suggest rural constituencies may no longer be the safe spaces they used to be for the Conservatives.

Which is why Sunak made the journey to Birmingham to address the NFU. “Good afternoon,” he began. It was 11 o’clock. Perhaps it was nerves, or perhaps he wanted to imply that he too had been up before dawn getting the herd into the milking shed.

His pitch was that farmers are his people. “Nine years ago, I gave my maiden speech in the House of Commons,” he said. “I pledged that day to be a champion of agriculture, the countryside and all of my hard working rural constituents. It’s farmers who feed us, farmers who embody those British values of strength, resilience, warmth and independence.”

There was more of this, much more, telling us how he’d walked up Swaledale and down Wensleydale, attended auctions, tried his hand at milking — “not very successfully,” he joked with just the right self-deprecating tone — and how much he liked hedgerows. Farmers were the stewards of the landscape, the keepers of tradition, the feeders of the nation. People in cities simply didn’t understand how tough their jobs were, he told them, laying on the flattery like a thick slurry: “On behalf of the nation, I just wanted to say thank you.”

He wasn’t terrible at it, either. When Sunak was selected for his North Yorkshire seat, he put the hours in, meeting his future constituents and hearing their complaints. He can do a convincing impression of someone who knows why the local drainage board matters. He would, let’s face it, make a terrific son-in-law.

Will it be enough to persuade them to take Sunak into their hearts, or will he be sleeping in the barn?

But he must have sensed that, however good his pitch had looked on the journey up, it wasn’t doing the job in the hall. He was received to polite applause. After his speech, NFU president Minette Batters took him over to some comfy chairs so that they could have a chat. Perhaps she felt compelled to take the role of the girlfriend’s mother, trying to persuade her husband to let this boyfriend live. She had earlier, in her own speech, reminded the audience that they’d seen worse prime ministers, describing Boris Johnson’s approach to trade negotiations, as to so much else, as “morally bankrupt”.

This was when we got the nervous laughter. Batters asked if there would be more money for farmers. “HAHAHAHAHA!” Sunak replied with an air of terror. “It’s a good thing the Chancellor’s not here!”

He tried to find a point of connection with his audience. His mum had been a pharmacist, running a small business “like all of yours”. Though relatively few of those in the audience will be sending their sons to Winchester. “HAHAHAHA,” he added, a slightly desperate edge creeping in.

The trouble is that, while Sunak would like voters to think of him as completely unrelated to the prime ministers who have preceded him through the door, he’s living with the consequences of their decisions. And sometimes the consequences of his own. One in the audience asked him when trade with Europe would be as easy as it used to be. The honest answer is that even trade with parts of the UK isn’t as easy as it used to be. Pointing to an agreement with New Zealand wasn’t going to win many points with this crowd.

On Tuesday afternoon, the government emailed a summary of the prime minister’s speech to everyone on the books of the Rural Payments Agency. Farmers are feeling the love in a way they haven’t for decades. Will it be enough to persuade them to take Sunak into their hearts, or will he be sleeping in the barn?

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