The EU agree concessions on a deal it once proclaimed to be “non-negotiable”. Prominent Brexiteers, including David Davis and Steve Baker, welcome the agreement. Ursula von der Leyen hails a pro-Brexit British PM as “Dear Rishi”. Even the DUP doesn’t rap out the immediate “no” many were anticipating. In the last few days we’ve been spirited through the political looking glass.
In Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts encourages Alice “to believe impossible things… sometimes as many as six before breakfast”. Rishi Sunak’s task now is to believe the supposedly impossible: that the Tories can win.
This is not the first time that the Prime Minister has confused the pessimists. Take his masterly role in demolishing Nicola Sturgeon. It’s a truism to state that politics moves quickly – but think back to December. Very Clever Commentators were unanimous that using a Section 35 order to block the SNP’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill would be a strategic blunder – “absolute folly”, according to Labor peer Helena Kennedy KC. Scottish Labor backed the GRR bill; many warned that “muscular unionism” would prove a gift to the nationalists. They were all wrong. Sunak and Alister Jack ignored the naysayers and acted decisively. As a result, Sturgeon is gone, leaving the Union in worse health than it has been for a long time.
The economy may also be turning a corner. The markets are calmer; inflation and mortgage rates are falling. Much is coming together for Sunak – although this has not yet translated into improved poll ratings.
One reason is that Sunak is seen to be cleaning up messes created by other Tories. But his problem is also one of presentation; only a gilded few politicians nowadays possess an innate authenticity and natural charisma, and Sunak is not among them. Time and again, he emulates the robotic customer service professional: sounding like he doesn’t care, even when saying that he does and even when he actually does, purely through the unbearable lightness of his intonation. No surprises that he has often struggled to make himself understood – he is an ardent Brexiteer who has come to be pigeon-holed as “softer” on Brexit than either of his predecessors, and one of the most lockdown-sceptic Cabinet ministers, who the public has come to view as an apostle of lockdown.
Of course, one swallow does not make a summer. Sunak deserves credit for recent successes, but voters’ main priorities remain the same; the economy, law and order, migration. Yet the recent string of victories not only shows the right instincts, but could also enable the Government to present a new narrative; a coherent sense of where it is going. Britain may now have better relations with the EU, but to what end? It is up to the PM to show the tangible benefits of that relationship. He should use the momentum generated by the deal to negotiate better access for the City, leading to economic gains and extra tax revenues.
So far, Sunak’s economic policy has been one of caution; calming and stabilizing. But is operation “don’t frighten the horses” morphing into extreme risk-aversion? Just eight months ago, during the post-Johnson leadership race, Jeremy Hunt vowed not only to reverse the planned corporation tax rise, but to cut it further from 19 to 15 per cent. Now as Chancellor, he is increasing it to 25 per cent – achieving yet another “impossible before breakfast” feat by uniting former chancellors Kwasi Kwarteng, Philip Hammond and George Osborne in condemnation.
It is hard not to get a sense that pro-corporation tax arguments in some Tory circles owe less to reality and more a terror of implying that Liz Truss and Kwarteng might actually have been right about something. Likewise, the decision to shelve every aspect of Trussism, including sensible reforms of planning and childcare, as if even good ideas are tainted by association. Given that the OBR’s latest forecast was “out” by £30 billion compared to real world data, it surely leaves room to offer UK business some much-needed breathing space. In this month’s Budget, Hunt and Sunak must remember that growth is and remains vital; just as the opposition are beginning to talk a better game on it.
So far, Labor has had an easy ride – Government turmoil has allowed them to coast by on “vibes” and calculated ambiguity. But that will surely slip away as we approach the next general election. They show no sign of junking their most radically progressive policy, a new Race Equality Act, despite their more moderate language. We need to know more about its small print – and how, precisely, Labour’s new legislation will differ from the Equality Act. Moreover, the party’s new-found interest in waste and cost-cutting is deeply unconvincing. It’s hard to imagine the likes of Angela Rayner doggedly trying to slim down the state, renegotiate commercial contracts, reform public sector pensions and so on.
So there may still be a path to victory for the Tories, albeit a narrow one. But people need a fuller sense of what is being offered; a profound idea of what the Conservative Party stands for. Above all, they need to see that Sunak is serious about winning so as to achieve something, rather than just to fix problems. But that’s the thing about believing impossible things: if you do it convincingly enough, they may come true.