Eliot Wilson

Sunak’s dire warning will fall on deaf ears

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech on national security at the Policy Exchange think tank in London (Getty images)

Even on the most optimistic reading, Rishi Sunak is drinking in the last-chance saloon. Today the Prime Minister is delivering a speech which is supposed to kick-start the general election campaign. Sunak wants to demonstrate that the Conservative party has the vision and policies to guide the country through a dangerous and uncertain future. But Sunak’s speech seems to be striking the wrong note: one of doom and gloom rather than optimism.

Sunak’s speech has been rapidly dismissed as a bungled relaunch

It’s no surprise that Sunak’s speech has been rapidly dismissed as a bungled relaunch. The PM’s thesis is that the next few years will see more change than the preceding few decades, and that we are in a dangerous era. The threats to global security from Russia and China, the challenge of mass migration and the dizzying pace of technological change are daunting elements of the world we are facing. Sunak warns of the danger posed by ‘those seeking to undermine our shared values and identities’.

This sense of unease will resonate with the electorate. The public mood is weary, uncertain and fractious. Sunak hopes to offer some reassurance: his announcement that defence spending will rise to 2.5 per cent of GDP by the end of the decade, even if the details are contested, is supposed to show resolution in the face of adversity; he hopes that the beginning of the Rwanda scheme will make clear his determination to tackle illegal migration; and he intends to portray himself as a leader at ease with technology and able to exploit its opportunities.

There is another more upbeat note to his speech: Sunak claims to have ‘bold ideas’ to ‘change our society for the better’, and wants voters to see him and his government offering a potential route towards prosperity and security:

‘At heart, we’re a nation of optimists. We’re not blind to the challenges or threats we face. We just have an innate belief that whatever they are, we can overcome them as we have done so many times in our history. And create a more secure future for you and your family.’

But simply confirming the electorate’s mood of gloomy fatalism will not help the Tories. There’s been a lot of talk in recent months on the dangers of Chinese infiltration, or even the spectre of a major land war spilling into western Europe. Perhaps this pessimism is accurate and we will see, in our lifetimes, conflict break out in Europe. But the dire warnings of politicians about what remains a hypothetical situation are not likely to encourage voters in Britain to cling to a familiar status quo. In the present circumstances, such warnings will only confirm their instinct: that it is time for a change and that Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party, however little genuine enthusiasm they may have sparked in the public consciousness, should be given a chance.

When Margaret Thatcher surprised the political establishment by snatching the Conservative leadership in 1975, the party’s fortunes were at a low ebb. It had lost three of the four preceding general elections, the Heath government had proved itself ideologically bankrupt and Tories looked at a state that was beginning to look not just dysfunctional but ungovernable. Thatcher understood intuitively that if she was to succeed – which was by no means thought inevitable or even likely – she had to deliver a message which was firm and optimistic.

‘You don’t win by just being against things, you only win by being for things and making your message perfectly clear,’ she told her first press conference after winning. Her central prescription was straightforward and unambiguous: ‘a free society with power well distributed amongst the citizens and not concentrated in the hands of the state’.

Sunak is seeking to highlight the dividing lines between his party and Labour. That should not be his focus. He needs every syllable he utters between now and polling day to contribute to an idea of what the country will look like in five years’ time and why it will be better.

The PM can point to falling inflation, and the likelihood of interest rates coming down too. The stock market is improving, the Financial Times saying that ‘the UK is finally starting to draw a crowd’. He must shake off his distrust of colleagues and send his better performers like Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch into the fray. And he must avoid the temptation to scrape by on the argument that Labour would be ‘even worse’.

Written by
Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson was a clerk in the House of Commons 2005-16, including on the Defence Committee. He is a member of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

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