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Who Dares Wins? Will Sunak's Election Gamble Pay Off?

By Kris Hopkins

Senior Political Advisor

As the year of elections heats up, Clarity’s Senior Political Advisor Kris Hopkins provides his initial thoughts around the snap UK election announcement that came as a surprise to many last week. 

Park the Pimm’s, it’s a summer election, hooray!

I have fought five general elections. There were common themes: trying to force wet leaflets through unforgiving letterboxes, eating too many samosas, and an addiction to the Electoral Calculus website. On the day Theresa May called the 2017 snap election, Electoral Calculus was predicting a 20% lead for the Conservatives in my constituency, Keighley, with a majority of over 10,000! Six weeks later, on my birthday, I lost my seat by 239 votes. So things can change!

Competence and Credibility

George Osborne spent five years preparing for the next general election when he became Chancellor in 2010. He made tough decisions to get the deficit under control, then cleared the decks for 2015, which produced the first Conservative Party majority since 1992. There were times when I was more than slightly concerned about the outcome, with the likes of Labour’s Ed Balls keeping our feet to the fire, but the electorate did back us. We got our country's finances back under control and we looked competent.

The journey from December 2019 to today has been less well coordinated! There has undoubtedly been turmoil, with a global pandemic, a major European war and the ongoing ramifications of Brexit. However, it's at those times when you need leadership, and the Johnson and Truss eras have sucked credibility out of this period for the Conservatives. 

Sunak is arguing that it was he who made the right calls on the pandemic furlough scheme and that since taking the role of Prime Minister, he is the known quantity that has steered the UK back into calmer waters. Competency may have returned, but the problem he faces is that he is still unable to counter the Labour call of ‘14 years of Conservative chaos’. There comes a time when the public just stops listening and it is hard to see how they can come back from this situation.

The campaign so far 

At the same time, the media focus is so intense at the start of an election campaign; avoidable images of soggy suits and visits to the Titanic Museum only reinforce the claim that Sunak is a washed-up captain steering a sinking ship. The election announcement appeared to be a strategic play to put the other parties off balance; particularly the Reform Party, who pose a major threat to the Conservatives’ right flank. If so, the first major announcement on national service hasn’t quite hit the mark.

Dan Hodges, the Mail on Sunday commentator, wrote on Saturday “compulsory national service is the most insane policy proposal launched in an election campaign by a major political party.” He’s not a fan, and if the Mail on Sunday thinks ‘national service’ is not a vote winner for the Conservatives, then it’s not a vote winner for the Conservatives. With the Conservatives now pushing further support for pensioners by turning the pensions triple lock into a quadruple lock, there is a real question mark as to whether they have given up on the young vote. In sharp contrast, the Labour Party announced that 16- & 17-year-olds will get the vote. 

This inability to really kickstart the campaign points to the additional self-imposed burden of calling a General Election when your own team isn't ready for it. It appears that the Conservative Party campaign manager, Isaac Levido, was opposed to the snap election and now more voices are asking why Sunak made the call, without even consulting his own Cabinet. The Party wasn’t ready in 2017 and the results showed that lack of preparation.

So nearly a week in, there are already many talking points. Nevertheless, my own experience shows there are no guarantees, despite what the polls say… 

The Government-in-waiting?

I will be interested to see how Sir Keir performs under closer scrutiny and how far Labour go in terms of deploying their policy programme (which they will be held accountable for) or hold back and purely focus on the “change” narrative that is bland but effective. After years in the wilderness, ignored by voters and the media, Labour are stepping back into the spotlight of harsh scrutiny, and they’re a little out of practice. Will the next 6 weeks see holes picked in their ideas, or will that simply be irrelevant given the groundswell of current opinion.  

The regional impact of the Liberal Democrats (in the Home Counties and South West), Reform (in the Midlands and the North) as well as the SNP in Scotland will be particularly pertinent this time around as to the future health of any Red or Blue Walls! The success of their campaigns will be very interesting to follow. 

So we are buckled in and ready for a ride of political gaffes, awkward constituent questions, fiery TV debates and endless speeches. Each party will have its election grid, which it will attempt to keep to, but new issues always come to the forefront in the heat of an election campaign and almost every day, the parties’ plans will be thrown off-course by one thing or another. The Conservatives have a mountain to climb even to just avoid a massive defeat, but an increasingly changeable and frustrated electorate can throw up all sorts of surprises. 

We’ll be devouring all this information as the political nerds that we are and ensuring that all clients are kept up to speed and prepped ready for all eventualities after the 4th July. 

The Clarity Public Affairs Team will be providing regular analysis of the General Election campaign including a review of the main party manifestos. If you wish to discuss any issues around the UK General Election or consider any ways in which Clarity can support your political and policy planning, please touch base with Kris ([email protected]) or Phil Reid (Partner, Public Affairs, [email protected]). 

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