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The Conservatives are heading for a long spell in the wilderness

The next Tory prime minister probably isn’t even in the House of Commons yet

John Rentoul
Saturday 20 January 2024 16:50 GMT
Sunak laughs off mother pleading with him to fix NHS waiting lists for her daughter

Politics can be a simple business. Isaac Levido, who brutally summarised the Conservative message at the last election – “Get Brexit Done” – is now trying to do the same again: “Stick to the Plan”.

The clarity and simplicity of the message was evident in Rishi Sunak’s Downing Street news conference on Thursday, as he tried to move on from the disaster of winning the Commons vote on the Rwanda bill: “Taxes are being cut – Labour would put them up again.”

It is a plan, and it is the only credible plan that could give the Conservatives a chance in the election. However, unfortunately for the prime minister, it has been trumped by an even simpler fact about British politics, which is that the voters have had enough. They want to throw the rascals out and give the other lot a go.

It goes deep and it is unfair on Sunak, who is the most able prime minister since Tony Blair, but the Conservative Party has run out of chances. Boris Johnson renewed the party in office, but he blew it, and the Liz Truss mini-premiership clinched it for Labour. Sunak and Jeremy Hunt put the train back on the rails, but the Tory engine was broken.

The voters could not forgive the party for treating the office of prime minister so casually and, more importantly, for taking such risks with the public finances. The Truss interregnum did such damage because it associated the Tory party with higher interest rates, high inflation and lower living standards.

And the damage will probably last a long time.

It has long been obvious that Labour is woefully unprepared for government and that Keir Starmer, if he becomes prime minister, will be in terrible trouble straight away. I accept that he has managed the change in the Labour Party with something approaching genius. Last weekend, for instance, Laura Kuenssberg asked him why his positions now were different from those on which he was elected leader four years ago. He said the world had changed and stared blankly at her. Then he went from the TV studio to the Jewish Labour Movement and said that the party had changed and you can trust us now.

But his policies are not ready to meet anything as testing as reality. It is notable that he wasn’t agitating for confidential pre-election discussions between senior civil servants and shadow ministers to begin. There is a half-formed convention that they can start a year before the likely date of an election, but Starmer put in his formal request to Sunak for them only this week, after Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, told the Labour leader that the prime minister was ready to receive his letter.

The reason for Starmer’s hanging back is obvious. Labour policies are in no fit state for civil servants to prepare to implement them. This week, Labour’s long retreat from its £28bn-a-year green investment plan continued its erratic course. Someone told The Sun, “We’re going to drop the figure altogether.” A party spokesperson issued a non-denial denial, saying (I paraphrase), “We haven’t dropped it yet.”

What will actually happen under a Labour government is probably that progress towards decarbonisation will continue pretty much as it would under the Tories. Meanwhile, Labour will have to make almost the same terrible choices about limiting spending on public services as the Tories would.

But the voters will give Labour a chance. They will demand, as a Winchester shopper did this week, that the government “make it all go back to how it used to be”. To which Labour will respond, for a few years at least: “We are trying our best, but the Tories made such a mess of things.”

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are unlikely to face up to the scale of their problem for a long time. A lot of Tory MPs complained privately this week that the debate about the Rwanda bill had been hijacked as a hustings for the election of a leader of the opposition after a change of government. And it was interesting to observe that Robert Jenrick, the former immigration minister, made two good speeches in two days, without notes, while Suella Braverman, his former boss as home secretary, made a feeble one.

But I do not see “break international law” as the winning platform for a Tory recovery after the election defeat. The party has a problem in that the members, who make the final choice of leader (except in the emergency situation last time in which the runner-up filled the vacancy), refuse to accept the constraints of international law, or indeed the laws of economics.

What the Tories really need is someone with the same bland dumbness as Starmer to win the leadership, saying what the members want to hear and then to swivel to a median-voter-facing position in time for an election in 2028 or 2029. Maybe Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, is that person, but it doesn’t seem that the wider Tory party will be in the mood to tolerate a sharp turn towards the centre for many years.

Since 1979, the Tories were in power for 18 years, Labour for 13 and the Tories for another 14. Every time a party lost power, the leader who would take it back into government was not even an MP. Blair entered the Commons in 1983, David Cameron in 2001 and Keir Starmer in 2015.

On that pattern, the next Conservative prime minister will enter the House of Commons at the election after next, and might make it to Downing Street some time after 2037.

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