Katy Balls Katy Balls

Are any of the party leaders ready to be PM?

Since Rishi Sunak called the election last week, Tory MPs have been in a state of discombobulation. ‘It’s an absolutely crazy decision,’ pronounces a minister, after seven days of chewing it over. ‘It is the dumbest thing that has ever happened.’ To most Conservatives, every aspect of the campaign has seemed eccentric, even self-defeating – from Sunak’s rain-drenched announcement speech to his visit to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast.

The policy announcements, moreover, seemed designed to further alienate young voters. The plan for mandatory national service for 18-year-olds – 95 per cent of which would consist of compulsory ‘volunteering’ at weekends – is an idea which had never been seriously discussed at any point in 14 years of Tory or coalition government. Keir Starmer likened it to a ‘teenage Dad’s Army’. ‘It was something we actually joked they might do,’ says a Labour aide.

Isaac Levido keeps morale up by handing out a cuddly toy koala to the hardest workers

Along with conscription for the young there were the proposed tax breaks for pensioners. Only at this point did a coherent but concerning pattern become apparent: this is certainly a strategy, but it is not aimed towards victory. The goal is crash-landing while retaining a core ‘base’ – now defined as the over-65s.

Viewed this way, Sunak’s recent manoeuvres make a kind of sense. Victory would have required a one-nation strategy to attract all kinds of voters – and cautious policies that the Tories would actually implement. But winning would mean taking 350 seats while current polls suggest the Tories are heading to win about 100. ‘So we can guess what has happened,’ says one former cabinet member. ‘Rishi has been told by his strategists: you can’t win this. But you can lose with 200 MPs rather than 100 by love-bombing the pensioners – even if it goes against your own politics.’

Running the day-to-day campaign is Isaac Levido, a key player in Boris Johnson’s 2019 win, who keeps morale up by handing out a cuddly toy koala to the hardest workers. But while he calls the shots on the campaign, the decision to call the election was entirely Sunak’s – and it’s emerging that decision was driven in part by the fear that the Rwanda scheme was heading for a crunch point that could end up splitting the party.

Sunak had pledged that deportations would start in July and he’d see off any legal challenge. But as the date drew nearer, a challenge from the European Convention on Human Rights looked inevitable. That would force Sunak into making the move towards exiting the ECHR. 

Sunak was said to be open to that idea, but it would have prompted other senior Tories to quit. There were concerns that Alex Chalk would resign as Justice Secretary if the ECHR was overridden, as could Victoria Prentis as attorney-general. ‘They are wets,’ explains one senior minister. ‘But this could have split the party in two and we’d have had an election due to Tory collapse,’ says another former cabinet member. ‘That’s why Rishi called an election.’

Whatever the real explanation, there is a consensus among the 346 Tory MPs that they will be doing well if 200 of them return after the election. This would still mean a Labour landslide, but it would give the party a fighting chance of returning to power in five or ten years. ‘If we can fare better than we did in 1997 when we won 165 seats, we will be doing OK,’ says one minister. Privately, some are dubbing this the 200-seat strategy. A pollster refers to it as the ‘Dunkirk strategy’ – to accept defeat and seek to minimise losses. Viewed this way, survival is victory.

This explains why the Tories are the ones churning out headline-grabbing (if so far uninspired) initiatives, while Labour is saying nothing and nailing expectations to the floor. Starmer has been running a ‘Ming vase’ strategy, trying not to drop his 20-point opinion poll lead by saying or doing anything that might scare or upset voters. When Theresa May was expected to win in a landslide in 2017, she sought a mandate for change. Starmer, by contrast, is using his lead as an excuse to say nothing. ‘It would not shock me if all the stuff we have in the manifesto is what we have said before,’ says one party figure.

The Tories’ hope is that they will soon start to look energetic and radical in comparison to the risk-averse Starmer. But Tony Blair ran a similarly wide strategy, keeping it vague – and duly won three landslide majorities. At times it seems Starmer is trying to exhume the ‘Cool Britannia’ of the mid-1990s. This high-flying lawyer is now giving speeches about how he is, in fact, a country boy who had to share a football field with grazing cows. There is no attempt to pitch himself at Labour’s core vote: his campaign seems directed at Middle England.

Once, a Tory core-vote strategy would have focused on the shires or younger, aspirational voters. But age has  replaced social class as the big divider in UK politics. This is partly due to demographic changes: a larger number of pensioners depend on the taxes of a relatively small number of workers. The over-fifties already constitute the majority of those who are likely to cast a vote on 4 July. So Sunak, 44, is junking some of his own politics, which tend to favour youthful entrepreneurialism, and instead playing to the generation above him.

At the 2019 election, the Tories were ahead with these voters by more than 40 points – which helps explain why Johnson won such a large majority. That lead has diminished. Richard Tice’s Reform party is winning over some of this cohort. Reform has 12 per cent of the vote nationally, but is far more popular among the over-fifties. That’s playing on Tory minds.

This week, Conservative MPs received a message on WhatsApp from one of the party’s campaign coordinators: ‘Squeezing Reform is the top priority so I encourage everyone once the delivery dash pre-expenses is finished, to pivot to canvassing in areas with a high Con/Reform audience.’

This approach is a far cry from the ‘Let Rishi be Rishi’ strategy of the last Tory party conference, when the Prime Minister said he would defend himself against a 30-year failed consensus. Now he’s gone from tech bro to pensioner whisperer. ‘He’s a young Prime Minister – not just his age but how he dresses. The hoodies, the bracelets,’ argues one former cabinet colleague. ‘He hated Boris’s plans to bribe the elderly and went all-out against them. So he’s now saying the opposite of what he thinks.’

There is little to suggest Sunak has a longstanding interest in national service – as chancellor he slashed the budget for the ‘national citizen service’ that was introduced by David Cameron by two thirds. When Johnson wanted to fund care homes, Sunak was appalled, saying that it subsidised the wealthy without in practice adding any capacity. He didn’t threaten to resign but said he would have to push up taxes to fund the idea, thinking Johnson would back down. He didn’t.

Rishi Sunak at the Market Bosworth Bowls Club, 28 May 2024 (Getty Images)

Labour looks on with some bemusement. It views the election so far as a comedy of Tory errors, with its own side subjected to minimal scrutiny. The plan is that by making no specific new pledges, it will offer as few hostages to fortune as possible. ‘It is a tough, tough message – yes, you want to shout about policy but discipline has to reign,’ says an aide who works with Labour’s campaign director Morgan McSweeney. ‘We have known from day one where we need to go to win.’ The Labour staffer’s best reward, according to the aide, is ‘a nod and well done from Pat [McFadden, Labour campaign co-ordinator] – never to be confused with a ray of sunshine’.

Starmer is presenting himself as patriotic and stable, distinguished more by what he doesn’t want to do. This is in marked contrast to the Conservatives’ lavish pledges. ‘The Tories are going hell for leather – they have promised the best part of £70 million already in the campaign,’ says a Labour aide. ‘It is the Corbyn 2019 approach. Jeremy Hunt has transformed into Jeremy Corbyn.’

The first debate has been called for next week. Reform had wanted Nigel Farage to represent them in any showdowns – but there seems little chance of that now that the former Ukip leader has said he won’t be standing and that his heart lies across the Atlantic with Donald Trump. So in the meantime the more restrained Richard Tice must seek to channel his inner Farage as much as he can. Farage takes the view – as do many in Reform – that the real election they need to focus on is the one after this. Reform is not necessarily looking for MPs but for a voter base: ideally 15 per cent of the electorate.

Then we have Ed Davey, the obscure Liberal Democrat leader whose main contribution to the campaign so far has been posing on (and falling off) a paddleboard. The party’s plan is to pitch him – in the words of one Lib Dem aide – as ‘a centrist dad’. It wants to cut through its small party disadvantage by having him out on the campaign ‘having fun’, being photographed in the sea or frolicking in fields. ‘Ed is enjoying the moment,’ says a member of his team. Of the Lib Dems’ top 80 target seats, more than 70 are held by Tories.

At a briefing for Lib Dem aides in Pimlico two days before the election was called, staff were told about their new target voter: Waitrose Woman. She lives in the Blue Wall and enjoys dog walking, Countryfile and the chef James Martin. It is the Lib Dem campaigner’s job to spend the next few weeks wooing her. If the Tories do melt down, constituencies that have only ever been blue – such as Jeremy Hunt’s South West Surrey and the seats of the departing Dominic Raab and Michael Gove – could finally fall to Lib Dems. Yet the Lib Dems fear that the ‘Surrey shufflers’ – those who have moved from the big smoke to home counties suburbia – are more likely to vote Labour.

After just a week of electioneering, the party leaders have adopted their personas and strategies, with varying degrees of plausibility. But the way the campaign is being fought suggests that this is not so much a battle about who will govern Britain. Rather, it is about the scale of the expected Labour victory.