With this half-hearted, delusional manifesto, Rishi Sunak has all but given up | Martin Kettle

Election manifestos are never going to qualify as works of poetry. Only a small proportion of voters will ever read them. Even the politicians will soon forget them. But manifestos matter all the same. They are a proffered contract to the electorate, in which a political party sets a direction and outlines its priorities in return for the voters’ support. At least in theory, the manifesto offers an electoral setting for overarching visions and for big ideas.

Rishi Sunak launched his 2024 election manifesto at Silverstone today with the claim that only the Conservatives have the big ideas that will make Britain a better place. But the Conservative manifesto turns out to be a negation of that claim. Sunak’s notion of a big idea is a politically impoverished and impoverishing one. For him, the promise of a 2p national insurance cut counts as a big idea. This is an accountant’s vision of political campaigning and not the vision of a national leader.

Sunak’s manifesto might be 76 pages long, but it contains very little sense of the uneasy Britain we are living in, or of its highly insecure and contingent national mood. The slogan “Clear plan, bold action, secure future” appears on almost every other page. The words are reminiscent of Theresa May’s “strong and stable”, or of the pandemic-era injunctions to “Stay alert, control the virus, save lives”. But they are equally vacuous.

You will search in vain amid the 76 pages for larger or more uplifting thoughts, let alone for wise truths or figures that could ever seriously add up. It is hard not to feel that this is a party lacking in new ideas led by a prime minister whose personal riches permit him to inhabit a very different material and mental world from the rest of us.

Sunak’s speech at Silverstone was perhaps more sensitive than this, with its recognition that there is public frustration with both him and his party. That admission was another attempt to move on from the debacle of his early departure from the D-day commemorations last week. But the document itself contains little of that. It reads more like a quarterly report to shareholders in a difficult time, not an invitation to make a renewed five-year commitment.

It is, you could simply say, another telltale sign that Sunak just does not do politics well and that the task is beyond him. He leads, after all, the party that, 190 years ago, practically invented the modern election manifesto. Sir Robert Peel’s 1834 address to the Tamworth electors contained the promise that the Tory party would work constructively within the reformed parliamentary system, rather than seek to turn the clock back. That really was a big idea back then. What is more, it worked.

But Peel’s was not the last Tory manifesto to matter. There have been more recent examples too. May’s manifesto of 2017 would be doomed by the enforced mid-campaign U-turn over its social care plans. But it attempted to draw a post-Brexit line against some Thatcherite obsessions, insisting that industrial strategy was essential, that dogma was dangerous and that government was a force for good. That was a big idea too, and the modern Tory party is much the poorer for May’s inability to rally its members behind it.

Even Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto was a kind of big idea too. It was constructed around two slogans – getting “Brexit done” and unleashing “Britain’s potential”. In many ways they were meretricious pledges. But they were certainly not small ones. In more competent and more honest hands than Johnson’s, they might still have electoral heft today. Instead, they are key parts of Sunak’s struggle with his predecessors’ legacies.

Two central problems run through the 2024 Conservative manifesto like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock. The first of these is that Sunak heads, not very competently, a deeply divided party. The internal gulf may even be getting deeper, hard though this is to imagine. If his many critics decide that the manifesto launch has “fallen flat”, this paper reported yesterday, they may even publish an alternative and more rightwing manifesto of their own.

The second is simply that the Tory party has been in power for 14 years and the country is ready for change. True, in the past the party has occasionally survived in office for even longer, as when John Major won a fourth successive term for the party in 1992. Those, though, were relatively optimistic times, politically as well as economically. The post-Brexit years, by contrast, are years of pessimism, marked more by failure than by success.

Even so, individual candidates can sometimes make a better fist of the challenge than Sunak is doing. The former minister Jesse Norman, a one nation Tory standing for reelection in Hereford and South Herefordshire, has just produced an unflaggingly positive campaign video of this kind, trumpeting some achievements in his area from the 14 years of Conservative rule. “We work together to deliver the outcome on behalf of everyone,” Norman announces.

It is relatively easy for a Conservative MP to hold on to a single seat in Herefordshire compared with the uphill task that Sunak faces in the wake of the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss years across the country as a whole. It would take something close to political genius to come up with a manifesto that would now be able to reinspire the masses of Tory voters who have deserted the party since the slide began in autumn 2021 – and neither Sunak nor his critics is that.

The manifesto repeatedly complains about the state of the country without acknowledging that this state has developed on the Conservatives’ own watch. It barely mentions Brexit, even though Brexit was absolutely front and centre of the previous Conservative campaign, and even though Brexit remains one of the three or four defining problems facing Britain. It was almost possible today, listening to Sunak at Silverstone, to imagine that the Tories were trying to unseat an incumbent Labour government rather than being the incumbents themselves.

The result is that the 2024 Conservative manifesto has an air of make-believe about it. It is an attempt to present the Tories as a party both of change and of continuity at the same time. A more brilliant leader than Sunak might even pull off such a thing. With Sunak in charge, it ends up being neither real change nor real continuity. We are left instead with a Potemkin manifesto, a pretend manifesto for a pretend government after a pretend election victory for a pretend serious party that is now no such thing at all.

The Guardian

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