30th May, 2024

Will Sunak’s Latest Reset Work?

GK Associate Hugo Tuckett examines the Prime Minister’s recent speech at Policy Exchange and whether he can address the Conservative Party’s declining fortunes.

Rishi Sunak turns his attention to security in bid to tackle Labour’s poll lead.

Following a dismal set of local election results and the high-profile defection of Dover MP Natalie Elphicke to Labour, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has attempted to reset the political agenda. He used his latest relaunch at Policy Exchange, a Conservative-friendly think tank, to portray himself as the best leader to guide the country through what he described as the “dangerous and transformational” years ahead.

References were made throughout to ensuring the UK’s security in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. It was also telling that Sunak made a pitch to voters on the opportunities presented by artificial intelligence – an area where he will feel comfortable promoting his tech credentials against the Labour leader Keir Starmer, who is 17 years his senior.

It is not unusual for incumbent (and unpopular) governments to paint opposition parties as inexperienced and incapable at a time of potential national peril. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously argued “this is no time for a novice” in the wake of the 2008 financial crash amid David Cameron’s growing popularity. However, to go for this tactic right at the start of a general election campaign does suggest Sunak’s No.10 operation is running out of levers to pull to tackle Starmer’s seemingly unassailable lead in the polls.

Sunak’s pivot into security marks a clear distinction from his previous attempts to put the Conservatives on the path to election victory. At the 2023 Conservative Party Conference, he tried to paint himself as the change candidate and separate himself from the then 13 years of Conservative rule. Sunak was subsequently forced to adopt a continuity-focused strategy and defend the Conservatives’ record in office following David Cameron’s return as Foreign Secretary later that year.

The extent to which Sunak’s latest reset will work will depend on whether the electorate is still listening. The Conservative Party can highlight its commitment to raise defence spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030, a pledge yet to be matched by Labour, who have adopted the looser definition of meeting the 2.5% figure “as soon as resources allow.” However, with Labour so far ahead in the polls and three changes of tack in less than a year, it does raise the prospect that the Prime Minister is trying to engage an electorate which is simply no longer interested in what the Conservatives have to offer.