Why those trying to engage in policy shouldn’t completely write off the Conservatives under Sunak
With the arrival of the Easter parliamentary recess in the UK, it feels like the first real ‘end of term report’ for Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister. With the Conservative Party’s 2022 being a pretty unedifying spectacle for the country as a whole, how has Sunak fared through the challenges he has faced, and what does this mean for the UK’s political outlook? As the policy and public affairs community increasingly shifts its focus to a future general election (most likely in the Autumn of 2024), his performance in recent weeks has stirred growing interest.
Indeed, as they unwrap their Easter eggs, team Rishi would surely be satisfied with the progress made since he delivered his ‘five pledges’ speech in January 2023. Traction was initially slow; reaction to his structural changes of Government departments saw it being pigeon holed as an example of a wonkish approach that would consign the party to electoral oblivion. However, the agenda from Downing Street has slowly built up a degree of momentum as Winter has turned to Spring.
What has Sunak “achieved” so far in 2023?
Key movements under Sunak include:
- A revised Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland via the Windsor Framework successfully avoided a major rebellion in parliament.
- The UK’s post-Brexit trade policy continued with accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), enabling the UK to trade within a bloc of 500 million people across the Indo-Pacific region.
- The first Franco-British summit in five years demonstrated a real thawing of relations and outlined some progress around immigration, energy and defence cooperation.
- International credibility was further enhanced at the AUKUS defence gathering in California.
- The Spring Budget, whilst by no means spectacular, did point to a more positive economic outlook and focussed on addressing some of the Prime Minister’s key priorities.
- The highly contentious ‘small boats’ issue (Sunak‘s new asylum which aims to stop migrants from crossing the English Channel to the UK from the European mainland) is far from resolved and may well create fractures in the weeks and months ahead. However, the Sunak team is aiming to make progress on this issue, which is growing in traction with the wider public as well as an important part of the Conservative electorate.
Now critics may well question whether these “achievements” are clear when given further analysis. The economic outlook is precarious (even since the Spring Budget) and many of these issues are far from resolved, or bearing real fruit yet. It is also fair to point out that the Government is starting from a particularly low ebb in terms of success levels after a damaging 2022. The polls around voting intention do show a slight uptick of positive sentiment towards the Conservative Party, but they have hardly rebounded back in earnest.
An uptick for the Conservative Party, but Labour remain strong
Nevertheless, in a fairly short time, the Conservative Party’s new leadership has demonstrated a noticeable degree of competence, cohesion and a sense of direction in what it wants to achieve. No mean feat from where they were back in October, when Liz Truss was forced to resign. Downing Street has achieved a firmer sense of order and discipline, while the Conservative parliamentary party appears more subdued, less rebellious and willing to stick the course with Sunak at the helm. At the same time, the Prime Minister’s own personal ratings have improved significantly, which the Labour Party under Keir Starmer will be keeping a watchful eye on.
This is not to say that Labour don’t remain in a hugely strong position for the next election. Starmer worked hard to straighten out the Labour Party’s problems while the Conservative brand imploded last year. They remain the hot ticket in town, with all our clients wanting to understand what a future Labour Government would mean in practice. Plenty of engagement in recent months has taken place, with Labour front bench teams reaching out to industry as they build a cohesive plan for its future manifesto.
Business and industry shouldn’t completely ignore the Conservative Party
The political winds still point towards Labour winning next year’s election, but the Prime Minister’s recent actions suggest there may still be some fight in the Conservatives yet. It would be wrong for organisations wanting to participate in the policymaking process within their sectors to completely ignore the Conservative’s plans for the future. They have a huge mountain to climb but are a force that shouldn’t be completely discounted considering the multiple factors at play. The existing majority that Labour has to overcome, the future election boundary changes, and the potential fallout in Scotland from Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation are just some of the additional issues to consider, and whilst the remaining time left with the current Parliament is limited, political and economic momentum could still align to mount a credible fightback.
Indeed, as former Labour politician Ed Balls said recently during an episode of the Andrew Neil Show, Sunak has been “making the [political] weather of late”, which could still spell danger if Labour is not careful. His warning to Labour was that Sunak had the potential to follow in the footsteps of John Major in the nineties - in the form of a surprise success at the 1992 election, rather than his calamitous defeat of 1997. Whilst the ‘97 version still appears more realistic, and the upcoming local elections may well be ugly for the Conservatives, there are signs that Sunak may have more in the locker to bring around a more competitive fight in the months ahead. The world of business and industry should bear this in mind when planning its political advocacy as election planning takes shape.
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