The American writer Joe Klein once described elective politics as “the art of competitive storytelling”. We know the story that Rishi Sunak wants to sell to the public. The scion of an upwardly mobile family of Indian ancestry who has reached the apex of power thanks to talent, hard work and the opportunities provided by Britain. A safe pair of hands who will fix the ghastly mess left by his predecessors. A fresh leader who will restore, as he put it in his sales pitch outside Number 10, “integrity, professionalism and accountability” to government after an appalling period when these qualities have been shockingly absent.
If he can make this tale persuasive with the country, then maybe the Tories can rebuild public trust from the smoking wreckage of the Johnson and Truss premierships. Labour’s senior team is alert to this. At the most recent meeting of the shadow cabinet, Sir Keir Starmer warned his colleagues to expect a significant Tory bounce in the polls. That does not make the Labour leader a super-forecaster. Given the extinction-level ratings the Tories collapsed to over the autumn, there is really only one way for the Conservative poll level to go and that is up. Which means a deflation of the stratospheric leads Labour has been enjoying. “None of us thought that the 30-, 20-point leads were real,” says one senior Labour frontbencher. “I think we’ll get back to where we were four or five months ago.” If she’s correct, Tory morale ought to improve and some Labour people will get windy.
Labour also has to be wary of predicting that the Sunak premiership will be as disastrous for the country as the Truss one was. “People are very worried about their mortgages and everything else,” remarks a member of the shadow cabinet. “We’ve got to be careful that we don’t look like we’re willing him to fail.”
Given the presidentialism of modern politics, what happens next will be widely viewed through the prism of how Labour’s leader matches up against his latest Tory adversary. When the shabby scoundrel was at Number 10 presiding over his seedy carnival of chaos, Sir Keir defined himself as the unJohnson. Competing with such a vivid example of debauchery and mayhem in high office, it was relatively easy for the Labour leader to present himself as the tribune of integrity and competence. During the short reign of Mad Queen Liz, Sir Keir defined himself as the anti-Truss. Against an extremely destructive ideological zealot, he offered himself as the sensible and centrist personification of fairness and common sense. By the end of Mr Johnson’s squalid rule, Sir Keir was outpolling him as the country’s preferred prime minister. He also emerged the victor when briefly head to head with Ms Truss, but then she was beatable by a lettuce.
The Tories have now moved the goalposts again. The shrewder people in Labour’s ranks grasp that their framing of Mr Sunak can’t be identical to the narratives they told about feckless Mr Johnson and reckless Ms Truss. The new Tory leader is a different character and Labour won’t do itself any favours by pretending otherwise. Officials and colleagues testify to Mr Sunak’s work ethic and attention to detail and to his willingness to address challenges intelligently and realistically. “Obviously, he’s got to be better than the last two,” says one member of the shadow cabinet. Labour need not be fazed by this. Better at running things he may be – it would be very hard to be worse – but Mr Sunak is far from flawless. He made some bad policy decisions even during his most popular period as chancellor. His “eat out to help out” scheme during the pandemic is now mainly remembered for helping the virus to dine out on more people. Too many of his “bounce-back” loans pinged into the pockets of fraudsters and vast sums were squandered on protective kit that turned out to be useless. During his unsuccessful audition to become Tory leader over the summer, his best idea for improving the NHS was to fine people who missed GP appointments, as if the NHS’s worst headache is insufficient demand for its services. One of his earliest U-turns has been to junk that idea. All this said, Mr Sunak on a bad day is likely to be an improvement on the pitiful performance of his predecessors.
So this latest Tory regime requires a recalibration of Labour’s approach. They do not want to repeat what happened under Neil Kinnock in the early 1990s when Labour thought it had mastered how to beat Margaret Thatcher only then to founder when the Tories replaced her with John Major.
At their first bout of mouth-to-mouth combat across the dispatch box, Sir Keir scattered his shots at several targets. The Labour leader went at his new opponent for being dishonest about levelling up, for being a friend of the tax-swerving rich and for resurrecting Suella Braverman as home secretary six days after she had been fired for security breaches that transgressed the ministerial code. This underscored the point that Mr Sunak has plenty of vulnerabilities. It also revealed that the Labour leader has not entirely made up his mind where to concentrate his assault.
Some in Labour’s ranks will want to make a big deal of the Tory leader’s vast wealth. This is the first time in history that the family in Downing Street will be richer than the one in Buckingham Palace. The public are well aware of this, not least because of his wife’s exploitation of non-dom status to avoid UK taxes on her overseas income, a device she only abandoned after it was exposed. Labour has to be a little careful here. There was a period when Labour people thought they would profit by attacking Mr Johnson for being an old Etonian.
‘Boris being posh never really landed for us,” comments one Labour frontbencher.
Character attacks can backfire by negatively defining the attacker. Lambasting him as Rishi the Rich will be a bad idea for Sir Keir’s party if it makes Labour seem anti-aspirational and hostile to success. Labour will be better served by tapping into the pervasive feeling that an alumnus of Goldman Sachs who wears Prada loafers can never walk in the shoes of people less fortunate than himself. The new prime minister already polls very negatively on “being in touch” and “understanding the lives of ordinary people”. Labour strategists say that what comes up in their focus groups is “everything from the designer clothes to the expensive coffee cup to not knowing how to use a debit card in a petrol station”. The last budget he delivered as chancellor, back in March, displayed an insensitivity to the crushing effect of the cost of living crisis on the struggling when he refused to uprate universal credit to keep pace with inflation. He again demonstrated an inability to read the room when he got on the wrong side of Marcus Rashford over free school meals.
A critical priority for Labour is to thwart Mr Sunak’s attempts to represent himself as a new broom. “We cannot possibly allow him to present himself as the change we need,” says a senior member of Sir Keir’s team. “We’ve got to pin the Tory record on him.” He has already gifted ammunition to the opposition by putting together a government that, for reasons of faction management, contains a lot of Tory faces recycled from the Truss, Johnson and May regimes, including disgraced ones. He has sabotaged his own marketing by restoring Ms Braverman to the cabinet after less than a week in the sin bin. The dogs on the streets know that this was her price for delivering him support from the hard right of the Tory party. This tawdry deal has made an instant nonsense of Mr Sunak’s “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” motto.
As we head into a second season of austerity, the most important competition between Conservative and Labour stories will concern the economy. Mr Sunak’s best hope of weathering what is going to be a grisly period will be to convince people that rocketing inflation, surging interest rates, another spending squeeze, higher taxes and all the other pain that will be inflicted on Britons is to be blamed on Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Labour’s argument is that the Russian dictator is only an accessory and the main culprit is years of dire growth because of Tory economic mismanagement. Misery made in the Kremlin. Misery made in Downing Street. There you have the rival stories. Which of these narratives proves most compelling to the public will, more than anything else, determine who prevails.