Sunak of many colours

He has become all things to all people, that he might save some seats


The great comfort of listening to Rishi Sunak speeches is that he so visibly resents giving them. So it was on Monday, when we walked across the road to listen to what we had been told was a “major” address on the “stark choice” facing the nation at the coming election.

The prime minister’s voice was hoarse and his delivery flat. The speech was supposed to be about the fight with Keir Starmer, but as it went on it became clear the prime minister is locked in a vicious passive-aggressive battle with just about everyone around him.

Let’s start with the backdrop. The usual rule with prime ministerial backdrops seems to be to take the leader to one of the most beautiful places on earth — the naval college at Greenwich, say, or Florence — and then make them deliver their speech in front of a grey board. This time Sunak had travelled a couple of hundred yards from Downing Street to an office block, where he was to speak before a wall plastered with the logo of a think tank, like a footballer explaining that it had been a tough match and he was sorry not to have been able to give the fans the result they wanted.

The future was terrifying, but also wonderful

There was the outfit, tight all over, trousers stopping well short of the ankle. Those of us who live in sartorial glass houses should be careful about chucking rocks, but it is very hard to take someone seriously when he is being so obviously cheated by his tailor.

There was the timing. Just before Sunak spoke, Esther McVey, his parodically titled “Minister for Common Sense” was addressing a different think tank, across the road. I’ll leave it to others to complain about the lack of message discipline this shows. At a professional level, I’d request that the Tories ration themselves to one highly-sketchable oration a day.

But most of all there was the speech itself. There was a fashion, in the early days of ChatGPT, for politicians to talk about the possibilities of artificial intelligence only to reveal — imagine our astonishment the fifth time this happened — that their words had actually been crafted by a computer! Ten minutes into Sunak’s address, I began to wonder if we were about to get such a revelation, but it never came. This mix of cliché and incoherence had, it turned out, been crafted by hand.

We’ve become used to Sunak veering wildly around the policy arena as he tries to find something that makes a difference to the polls. But this time it was happening within a single speech. It’s not simply that the text made no effort to reconcile its own stated policies, though it would be fascinating to hear how you both increase defence spending and cut taxes and borrowing. Each paragraph bore no relationship to the ones before or after it, whiplashing back and forth as though they had been pasted together at random.

The future was terrifying, but also wonderful. It was ridiculous to talk about what happened in 2022, but vital that everyone remember what happened in 2008. He was going to run an election positive campaign, unlike Labour, who were a bunch of cowards only waiting to get into power so that they could hand the Princess of Wales over to the Russians. Labour had “no plan for our energy security”, complained a man who has spent the past year complaining that Labour’s energy security plan is dangerously expensive. He, Sunak, was the only person tough enough to stand up to Putin, but also would not rule out doing a deal with the Russian leader over Ukraine.

“Only one party is talking about the future,” Sunak claimed. Certainly the Conservatives have very little interest in talking about the past 14 years. Labour had “no principles”, he went on, explaining that “Keir Starmer’s gone from embracing Jeremy Corbyn to Natalie Elphicke, all in the cynical pursuit of power at any price.” There’s a fair case that no party which made Natalie Elphicke an MP is fit for government, it’s just not something I would have expected to hear coming from the Conservatives, who this time last week were pouring money into her seat in an effort to get her re-elected.

Labour “act like a pressure group, not a would-be government,” said a man whose Minister For Common Sense had just announced she wanted to ban civil servants from wearing rainbow lanyards. “People are abusing our liberal, democratic values,” he went on, suggesting that he’d at least been briefed on the contents of McVey’s speech.

Don’t bother trying to get your head around this

We wandered all over the place. There was a paragraph, neither introduced nor mentioned again, in which he announced that Britain was about to cure cancer. “If you have a brilliant new idea — I want you to build it,” the prime minister told us, although we should be clear that this doesn’t apply to brilliant ideas about train lines to Manchester, or indeed houses.

It was supposed to be a speech about existential threats facing our country, but the only mention of global warming was a couple of lines concerning the danger that we might reduce our carbon emissions too quickly.

Even someone taking Sunak’s argument at face value will struggle. We’re living at a time of great jeopardy, apparently. But what is the sort of international threat to which the answer is “appoint Grant Shapps as Defence Secretary”?

Having begun by telling us about the perilous danger we were in, he finished by attacking “doomsterism and the cynical narrative of decline”. So there you have it. We might all be dead in six months, but we should be optimistic about it. Britain is facing the most dangerous years of most of our lives, but is also about to cure cancer. The last 14 years have been terrible, but also wonderful.

Don’t bother trying to get your head around this. There’ll be another relaunch in a couple of weeks. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a typewriter as it tries to bash out a winning argument. But probably only for another six months.

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