Patrick O’Flynn Patrick O’Flynn

This national service plan is a patronising gimmick

(Photo: Getty)

The idea of bringing back national service to knock into shape teenage tearaways and long-haired layabouts was a staple of my youth.

Peppery comment articles along those lines in the old, broadsheet Sunday Express or News of the World would crop up intermittently through the ill-disciplined 1970s. Typically they would then be countered by the response that ‘the army doesn’t want them’ and the idea would die down for a while.

It is a gimmick from a posh liberal who thinks the plebs can be won over with eye-catching superficiality

It should therefore come as no surprise that a prime minister desperate to reconnect with a long-lost tribe of social conservatives is now proposing a compulsory stint for 18-year-olds in the forces or on community projects.

Rishi Sunak and his strategists no doubt consider the policy a way of creating what Evelyn Waugh once termed ‘a tug upon the thread’ to pull back lapsed followers into an ancient fold.

It won’t work in my view. This is not because there is a lack of public appetite for boosting social solidarity via such impositions upon our increasingly ‘every man for himself’ modern era, but because Sunak’s overall political programme has been rumbled as not real.

The Prime Minister asked to be judged by voters on five key commitments – halving inflation, restoring a decent rate of economic growth, cutting public debt, slashing NHS waiting times and stopping the boats. Yet he called an election before he needed to with only the first of those tasks executed. The final pledge – so important to the culturally conservative voters that the Tories have lost – is going backwards at a rate of knots with 10,000 illegal arrivals this year already, a benchmark reached in record time.

Alongside these failures, Sunak has by dissolving parliament now also pulled the plug on another totemic policy aimed at young people – the rolling smoking ban that was to follow 18-year-olds through their lives. And he has reminded us that the other idea he chose as route to a personal legacy – a ten-year-plan to reform A-levels – was always shot through with a will-o’-the-wisp quality given his own limited shelf-life.

His resort to the old right-wing rallying cry of ‘bring back national service’ echoes the final move of his disastrous cabinet reshuffle last autumn – making the GB News presenter Esther McVey his ‘minister for common sense’. It is a gimmick from a posh liberal who thinks the plebs can be won over with eye-catching superficiality because they are too dim to notice that the important decisions are all going in the other direction.

Summoning up the spirit of Sir John Junor and Alf Garnett is hardly an effective counterweight to telling police to stop arresting so many criminals because the jails are overflowing or presiding over yet another year of recklessly excessive immigration that trashes social cohesion. Or indeed taking people for fools when it comes to the prospects of his flagship Rwanda removals plan.

Sunak has become a Potemkin premier and we are being given a highly manipulated tour of his provinces, driven in a carriage past hastily-created facades of prosperity or progress. National insurance or inheritance tax to be abolished, every illegal migrant to be removed – these are vistas that will only convince the truly hard of thinking.

And now, suddenly, it is time for national service lads. It is increasingly tempting to think that the greatest punishment we could administer to Mr Sunak would be to leave him in situ, doomed to future ignominy as flashy idea after flashy idea topples into the dust. But we would not be so cruel.