Sketchy Politics: Sunak's sinking feeling

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Oh, can you open that for me? That is bad drawing. I’m really sorry. We are here to answer the question on everyone’s lips – is Rishi Sunak’s ship finally sinking?

OK, so, Robert, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, a spot of bother, would you say? I can’t help noticing that the good ship Conservative government is, as it were…

What, is it in shark-infested waters?

It’s going down. It’s going down. Let’s call it the Sunak. And while it’s going down, which we’re going to talk about in some detail.


There are some little people leaving the sinking ship.

There are.

On both sides. So we’re going to talk about that. And we’re also going to talk about the fallout from the local mayoral elections, which is key to the future of the Conservative party. And then have a look at what’s been going on north of the border, Scotland.

Absolutely. I think the really interesting question is, these waves could almost be polling charts. And the question is how much higher, or how much lower the Conservatives go in the electoral wave?

Right. And the pollsters are divided.


Aren’t they, on whether this is really kind of holed below the waterline and the whole thing is going to go underwater. And the Tory party seems now to be saying, well, let’s save as much of it as we can.

Yes. There are those who think it’s going completely to the ocean floor, and those who think you might save yourself if you can cling on to the funnels.

OK, so some are clinging onto the funnels. But quite a few are leaving the sinking ship. And the problem for the prime minister is they’re leaving on both sides. To the right, we’ve had Lee Anderson, who had quite a senior position in the Conservative party.

He didn’t want to leave. He was sort of pushed out.

And then to the left, we’ve had two MPs so far leave for the Labour party. They’re averaging one defector a month at the moment.

The interesting thing about Dan Poulter and Natalie Elphicke, because in previous times when we’ve had a run of defections, you think back to the Tory defectors to Tony Blair and to the Labour party, they tended to go. They got a guarantee of a safe Labour seat. A couple of them got jobs. One of them, Shaun Woodward, ended up in the cabinet.

There is there is that wonderful retirement home known as the House of Lords.

Absolutely. Dan Poulter and Natalie Elphicke don’t appear to have got anything much except for vague promises that their opinions will be asked on the NHS, which is Dan Poulter’s area of expertise, and housing, which is Natalie Elphicke’s. So they’ve gone without any obvious benefit to themselves. And partly, they’ve done it just to ditch Rishi Sunak.

But do you not think that this – the reason I sort of wanted to start with this is because it’s quite fun. Defection stories entertain everyone. And they just give that feeling of, OK, we’ve reached the very end. And we both remember in the in the mid-90s, before the ’97 election, every couple of weeks…

Well, you have personal experience with this, don’t you?

I do. My first job in politics was actually being a kind of staff handler to a defector from the Conservative party. And they are celebrities for a few weeks. And it’s incredibly exciting. And it fades away. But to the public, I think it does just give the impression that the ship is sinking.

The one thing I think is interesting as well about defections this time is that defections are really quite unusual. They don’t happen often. And the public tend to…

Although they might speed up, however.

Yeah, the public tends to view them as things that show what careerists and how awful MPs are. As you say, rats leaving a sinking ship. In fact, it’s normally an incredible lurch.

But on policy, Elphicke gave similar reasons that you might think might draw people to reform, i.e. tough on immigration because she’s the MP for Dover. And she says that Starmer is the man with the plan. No longer Sunak.

I mean, you’d have to get inside her head and root around for quite a while to really get clarity on the real reasons for this. She’s seen as very much of the right, and not in any way someone who’s simpatico with Labour goals.

But for Keir Starmer it’s an incredible win. Because as you say, she’s the MP for Dover. She says she’s leaving because Rishi Sunak can’t be trusted on immigration, which is one of the big things that they think they’ve got over Labour. So you can see why Keir Starmer decided to hold his nose and take her into the Labour party, because what a fantastic message this sends to voters.

So I can’t find that lovely map that you brought me. So I’ve had to do my DIY one. I’m so sorry about that. I’m not rejecting your lovely gift. So one of the reasons why Sunak’s staring at the waves and wondering how long he’s got is…

By the way, I will feel better about putting things in the wrong place on this map.

Exactly. Exactly. I do it for you. One of the reasons why Sunak is looking in such trouble is, obviously, the fallout from the most recent set of elections, local elections in England, police and crime commissioners in England and Wales. And not a good night for the Conservative party, right? So should we read the runes a bit about what that means? And also the mayoralties. So we’ve got some sort of interesting figures who were involved in the mayoral elections.

Andy Street. Ben Houchen. Not George Galloway.

Yeah, although he complicated things perhaps in the East Midlands. So the problem for Sunak surely also is that he’s got… because you talked about the pollsters having different versions of how high the waves are rising. The pollsters also have had different versions of what we should learn from the local and mayoral elections, right? And some are saying, uh, actually the Labour lead’s is not the kind of 20-odd points that it seems to be. Usually, it’s more like sort of 9 or 10.

But then other pollsters are saying, utter nonsense. This is actually really bad because what you saw in the locals was a complementary pattern of voting, where Labour areas removed a whole load of Tories from power. Lib Dem areas, they removed a whole load of Tories from power. The Greens making encroachments as well. Plaid did quite well there, which is where they hoped to take Westminster seats. It’s a poor, poor lookout for Sunak, really.

It really was. I mean, I’ve always been a bit sceptical of some of these measures, projected national share, which you hear bandied around by experts. We’ve heard enough of experts, as they like to say. It doesn’t take account of the fact that people are more likely to vote for the other parties in local elections. It doesn’t account for that Scotland wasn’t in there.

So, I mean, actually, I think the elections were really terrible for the Conservative party. They were really terrible for Rishi Sunak. You could see that where, even where they had small successes, they pinned some hopes on saying we could hold on to Andy Street in the West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley. Ben Houchen did hang on, but with a huge drop in his vote. Andy Street just missed out. But again, beating the national swing. And Sadiq Khan, where there was even a brief flurry – they might beat him. He cruised to victory.

Labour mayor. Labour mayor of London. Yeah.

Beatable Labour mayor as well.

Yeah, a Tory candidate who did not… seem to, as you wrote in a column, seemed to give the impression that she actually didn’t like the city she wanted to lead. She hated… what had happened to the city.

This is the only rule, I believe, that always holds true in politics, is that people will not vote for parties they think don’t like them. But I think…

So Street’s gone, right?

Street’s gone.

He could not, even though he did pretty well, considering. The tide was too strong for him. But I’m going to keep him on the table, Robert, because I want you to talk a bit about the future of the Tory party, and the sort of conservatism that’s trying to fight against the conservatism that gets the party…

And also, it cuts against this point, because actually Rishi Sunak’s response to the local elections, to everything that’s happening, has basically been to double down on the Tory base and say he’s effectively – although obviously not actually saying – he’s effectively saying, I don’t think we can win. What I now need to do is avert disaster. The way I avert disaster is by mobilising those people who normally would vote Conservative who are fed up with me and maybe are thinking about putting their vote in the Reform box or not bothering or maybe going to Labour. And what I’m going to do is scare them.

So it’s the right.

It is the right. But the traditional Tory vote is… he’s going to run. And we saw it in a speech he made to the policy exchange all about the many threats to society, and Labour can’t be trusted on any of them. And he is running that campaign because it’s all about now mobilising the base to make sure that the ship doesn’t sink too low.

And saying crucially, Labour won’t keep you safe. Labour can’t keep you secure.

Keir can’t be trusted on security, on the economy, on all these things.

So there’s a kind of role for Cameron as well to that sort of, you’re safer with the Tories. And Cameron has been talking up as well.

The coalition of chaos, the chaos of coalition. Need a new slogan.

But it’s very interesting, isn’t it, this idea. We go for the core vote. And part of the way we do it is saying that not just in terms of the economy, but also internationally, it’s a dangerous world out there. You’re safer with us. So you’ve got this kind of duo giving that message.

And the problem is the polls just show the public doesn’t think this. They don’t think Sunak is particularly competent leader, fairly or unfairly, they don’t think it. They may not like Keir Starmer, but they’re not frightened of him. They’re not worried about him on security or all those other issues. So it’s a curious one.

And the other reason it’s curious is because this policy of mobilising the base, and in the position they’re in I don’t think it’s necessarily the wrong thing to do. But it goes against what he’s actually been like as prime minister, mostly apart from the Rwanda policy. He’s filled his cabinet full of people like David Cameron. It’s a much more Cameron-like cabinet. It’s much more mainstream Conservative.

He got rid of… I mean, people like Suella Braverman, he initially put into his cabinet.

That was an electoral calculation to get the leadership. He had to get her support initially to make sure he could become leader. But people like Andy Street, one of the reasons why he bucked the national trend is because he ran a much more mainstream, much more inclusive, much more, we are delivering for the West Midlands campaign. OK, he didn’t make it in the end, but that was the kind of conservativism that people voted for with Boris Johnson as well, as well as the get Brexit done thing, which wasn’t an Andy Street policy.

Ben Houchen, again, he’s got a record of here’s how we’ve been delivering for you. The mayor’s been successful at shoving money at that region. And Rishi Sunak is effectively running on a different strategy. So it’s all over the place. You’ve got a Cameron-like cabinet. You’re preaching austerity and tax cuts. But actually, what the public keep telling you is that the Conservatives they like are the ones who are committed to their region, putting money in, intervening to make their lives better. So it’s a mess.

So over here, to revert to our map, so when they look at the map the Tories are under threat from the Lib Dems in the sort of West Country. The Labour party did incredibly well across that territory. They needed to get back…

You need like Dad’s Army arrows, don’t you?

Yeah, yeah. Can we please have some Dad’s Army arrows for next time? The Green party is doing very well against Tories in East Anglia. So when they look at the map after the locals, I mean, it’s not a pretty picture, wouldn’t you say?

They’re under fire every possible way. I mean, the Greens are interesting because to look at the party you would say they’re a strong left party. Their threat is eroding the Labour vote. They’re attracting young people particularly. And their threat is to Keir Starmer. But actually, I mean, you don’t think that’s completely true, do you?

Well, one of the seats they’re targeting, Bristol Central, that used to be Bristol West, they’re actually challenging a member of the Labour shadow cabinet, Thangam Debbonaire, who wants to be culture secretary should Labour win. And they’re doing really well there. So that’s a kind of attack on Labour from the left.

And they’re probably going to hold Brighton.

They could hold Brighton, which again, that used to be a seat where the other non-Tory parties kind of gave him a free run. We’ll see if that happens this time. But they’re also targeting a new seat in Suffolk, Waveney Valley, where they’re doing incredibly well, partly because, and we should point out that anyone jumping into the waters around the UK at the moment is in danger of finding something they don’t want to find. Because people are really annoyed about this kind of despoilation of nature.

They see it. The sewage in the waters issue goes down really badly with voters. So even in really Tory heartland, true blue areas such as East Anglia, where no other party’s really ever challenged the Tories, the Greens are doing very well, which is very interesting.

One of the points you made in a piece you wrote, which I thought was really… is that actually the irony of what the Greens are doing in places like Suffolk is they’re campaigning against everything which makes renewable energy possible.

We don’t… yeah, let’s not complicate their success with that delicious irony. That’s right. They’re opposing a lot of infrastructure, which is to do with mitigating climate change.


Oops. Not the same message, one assumes, in Bristol Central, where they’re targeting Labour and saying that Labour’s not doing enough on climate change.

They are the new Liberal Democrats.

Well, interestingly, some pollsters I’ve spoken to say the Greens are kind of the new Ukip, not in terms of their policies but in terms of being able to tempt a protest vote from right across the spectrum, which actually the Lib Dems can’t really do any more post-coalition. It’s harder for them to.

And this does play into one of the issues that… I don’t think Keir Starmer is getting much wrong at the moment. But one of the issues where he’s clearly got pressure is from the left of the Labour movement, both his own party and those who’ve left it, many of them the disgruntled Corbynites, who are all saying there are ways you’re not being radical enough. You’re letting us down. People are going to go Green. They’re going to go to George Galloway, they’re really furious about Gaza.

Although they might go to George Galloway for a few days, like Monty Panesar, the cricketer, and then think, uh dear, not sure about these people. And come back off again.

That was quite an exciting moment. A spin failure, as they say.

Cricket joke.

Cricket joke. Sorry about that. The Greens do have the capacity to take votes off Labour, particularly in urban areas, places where Labour is traditionally very strong. So it may not matter that much in a general election. And one of the things we saw in the London mayorals, where we’d gone back to first-past-the-post, is that Greens lent their votes to Sadiq Khan to make sure that he didn’t get beaten by the Conservatives. So I think it’s equally possible that they will do the same in a general election.

The fact that the mayoralties went to first-past-the-post for the first time, because when these mayoralties were invented, they were all preferential voting system, actually does give meaning, it’s sort of slightly more clues to voter behaviour in a general election, where the constituencies are first-past-the-post. And the game is squeezing the other challenger parties so that you can overtake.

The one thing we should say before we move on, is I do think what’s happened to Sunak since local elections is really extraordinary, because actually, immediately the local elections were over all of the people who had been rebelling against him and threatening to have him removed gave up the ghost almost immediately.

Which is why all the news energy sort of… news abhors a vacuum. And then we were given some defections to cheer us up.

They gave up the ghost in the face of elections which were as bad as they could almost possibly have been. Apart from Ben Houchen, there was nothing. These were disastrous results for the Conservatives. If you wanted to mount a coup, you had all the reasons to go after him.

And they gave up and they basically said, we haven’t got the votes to get rid of you. We haven’t got a candidate to replace you. And truthfully, we haven’t really got any ideas about what we do that would change things. So we’d really just rather you carried the can.

So for now, Sunak remains captain of the ship and possibly…

Primus inter pares. He gets the right…

He’s saluting as the ship goes down. That’s what you get to do if you’re… that is bad drawing. I’m really sorry.

He gets the right to conduct the orchestra as the ship sinks.

As the ship sinks? OK, we’re going to move to Scotland now. So there have not been elections in Scotland recently. But they’ve not been quiet up there. It’s fair to say.

Who needs elections when you’re changing leader? That’s so last century. Humza Yousaf, first minister, leader of the SNP, doing terribly. SNPs in a terrible, terrible place. Not all his fault, some much of it inherited. Nonetheless, doing terribly.

Inherited from Nicola Sturgeon.

Absolutely. And he was her designated choice. Broke his coalition with the Scottish Greens because every policy they were pushing was mostly the policies that were making the SNP more and more unpopular. So he broke with them without working out the fact that he didn’t have a majority in the Holyrood parliament. And they immediately said they’d support a vote of no confidence. Get rid of him. It all falls apart. He resigns.

And he is replaced by John Swinney, a veteran figure of the SNP, and former leader and deputy to Nicola Sturgeon, I think all the way through her leadership, a really experienced, actually rather well-liked figure, personally well-liked in Scottish politics. And the first thing he does…

Let’s put them all up here.

First thing he does is make friends again with Kate Forbes, the person Humza Yousaf beat for the leadership in a very acrimonious campaign. She’s considered something of a social Conservative, also more of a fiscal Conservative. So he has made her his deputy. There is a new look to the SNP in Scotland. And actually, although it was a shambles and a crisis, I think that was probably quite good news for him in the long run.

Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? So I’m going to carve off a section of our… the Greens can go back in East Anglia because I enjoyed reporting on them there. This is our Scottish section here. A lot of the voting intention polls for the general election now, because of this sort of weeks of chaos in the SNP leadership, putting Labour sort of edging ahead in Scotland. But you’re slightly doubtful, aren’t you? And it’s very interesting…

It’s just to the scale, not to the fact.

So here’s the thing. So Labour in Scotland only has two MPs. Actually, in 2019…

They only had one.

…they only had one, which when you think of how dominant Scottish Labour used to be, that is extraordinary.

It made it very easy when looking for a Scottish affairs spokesman.

Very, very true. The Conservatives actually have six. The Lib Dems have four. And the SNP has 43. It’s changed a bit. Hence, my horrible scribble here, because of by elections. But 43… I mean, this dwarfs the other parties. But actually, the pro-union parties, these three, it’s a very strange picture, which probably will change after a general election, right? Labour’s going to want to increase massively.

In a first-past-the-post system, it’s very advantageous to be the only party on one side. And when the entire argument is framed as pro or anti-independence, the SNP is the only major party of independence. It gets most of that vote, which is a big chunk of 40 plus per cent.

So actually, it buoys up the vote for the party, even when the party is in trouble.

What’s happening now…

In a way that Sunak cannot really find things to buoy him up.

Exactly right. So what’s happening now is that people are framing the coming general election not as about independence, but about whether you can get rid of the Conservatives. And the fact that Labour look electable, the fact that they want to get rid of the Conservatives, means that Labour is making inroads.

Now before the SNP implosion started, Labour people were talking about hoping to get 10 or 15 seats. Big increase. Now some of them are actually talking about whether they could even be the largest party in Scotland. Now I still think the independence vote is such a core vote that they possibly won’t get that far. But there’s no question they’re going to make major inroads. I don’t know that John Swinney and Kate Forbes help them in the general election, except for sort of putting a floor under how low they fall. But it could be a big deal come the Holyrood election.

It’s quite interesting, though, isn’t it, because the Scottish Tories seem to be quite bullish. And the Scottish Tory vote is what they call sticky, i.e., it doesn’t fall as catastrophically as the Tory vote, as the tide goes out everywhere else. You could get some quite interesting anti-SNP tactical voting in Scotland as well.

Although the interesting thing is, I mean, all or almost all of those Tory seats, the SNP is the major challenger for them. And so if the overwhelming feeling is we want rid of the Conservative party, the SNP could make inroads there even while they’re losing ground to Labour and indeed the Lib Dems. Elsewhere, alternatively, the Tory vote, if it’s sticky enough, could just could just hang on there.

I mean, I think the SNP was in freefall. And I think what’s happened has stopped the freefall. Now whether it can pull them back up to popularity, I’m sceptical. But I think it’s stopped the complete catastrophe that was heading towards them.

OK. So all we can say, really, is that, like the Titanic, this is going on and on.

We are sailing. The band is playing on.

The band is playing on. And I’m holding up a little picture here of Isaac Levido, who is Rishi Sunak’s strategic…

His elections whisperer.

His elections whisperer. And all of the chat at the moment is on a date of November 14th for a potential general election. Isaac, if you are watching, please, can you put us out of our misery? And next time, let’s talk about Labour and whether Keir Starmer is actually doing what he needs to to seal the deal, as they say, with the electorate. But for now, we just have to wait for that general election that doesn’t come and doesn’t come.

Yep. We’re treading water.



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