Sketchy Politics: can anything save Sunak?

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Their only hope… this is a memento. They are…

All right, I’ll get the map.

OK, let’s do that again.

There’s another one for the scrapbook.

This is Sketchy Politics: To Boldly Go!

Robert, we haven’t had a chat for a while.


But I feel like it’s hotting up. So we’ve got Sunak, you’ve got the blue pen.

I have the blue pen.

Would you like to do Sunak?

It wouldn’t look like him. No one would thank me.

I don’t know if my Sunak’s going to look like him either, to be perfectly honest. But anyway, here we have Sunak. And I’ve done him down here because he is…

If he’s going to be like that, I could have done him.

He is somewhat… look, intriguingly short trousers and a lot of ankle showing. How about that? He is under severe threat from his own party, is he not?

Is he under severe threat? There’s certainly a lot of noises from people who are saying, look, it’s a disaster. We are speeding towards the cliff edge. Nothing’s working. He’s not working. And we may as well roll the dice again because it’s a failure.

And if you look at the way his poll rating, the Tory poll rating ever since 2019 has largely been going down. There was a big Truss moment. And then it sort of went like that.


Heading steadily down. Odd blips around the vaccine thing. Rishi Sunak comes in here. And he is way ahead of his party. And the story of his premiership has been essentially of him catching his party. And I think he’s now about one percentage point ahead. That’s tremendously psephologically impressive isn’t it, that one?

I think it’s beautiful, yeah.

So in other words, he’s no benefit to the party. A dispassionate figure might say not that he is the problem, but that the party has dragged him down to its level. There is no reason to think a new leader will do anything other than make it worse because the public will look at them and go, what, are you mad, four leaders?

But desperate people are around. I don’t think there is much chance of him being toppled. I think we’ll certainly see another spurt of conversation straight after the local elections if they go as badly as many Tories expect them to go. But he is facing problems. And you can see the panic in Downing Street.

He didn’t go for an election. There were, I’m told, quite a lot of Tory MPs themselves quite keen that he called an election, get on with it.

We never believed that. Neither you nor I ever thought that May was going to happen if they were 20 votes back.

No. So we’re now into the warm up for the May local elections.


The reason I’ve got this kind of spindly figure on your left is because surely the Conservatives’ only hope is the economy.

Is the BFG.

Is the BFG. I love it. Which is, of course, Jeremy Hunt, who is really hard to draw I’m afraid. So that’s why he’s just a long streak there with eyes.


So their only hope… their only hope is the economy, right? So we’ve had the Hunt Budget, which was christened the no-buzz Budget. But they did pull some things, some like mini rabbits out of the hat. And also Sunak himself, as well as Jeremy Hunt, have been talking up the idea that if they were to be given another term there would be really quite considerable cuts to taxes, maybe even abolishing national insurance altogether.

So to this theme of best when we’re boldest, to quote Tony Blair, is that what they’re trying, just be bold on the economy?

I mean, I actually think in a way they’re mixing their messages quite badly. Whenever you talk to a cabinet minister now they’re always coming up with this phrase double taxation. So they clearly really quite like this idea. We’re going to ultimately get rid of national insurance, ultimately being the key word because that’s a very expensive thing to do.

So they’ve already taken 4p in total off national insurance, which will make a real difference to people’s pay packets.

It will. And I think there’s a decent chance they’ll have one more financial event before the election. And maybe they’ll see if they can find another penny or two.

Well, he’s been talking, hasn’t he? Hunt’s been saying possibly another fiscal event in the early autumn.

And this comes to the point, which is that actually, they just think they can keep turning the screws on the Labour party, at what point are you going to say, no, we can’t do this? Because you are promising better public services, a better world, more investment. And we’re going to keep taking the money away until you squeal about it.

It’s an interesting question. But I think they’re caught on two different hooks. You’re completely right. The only argument they have is the economy, which is some awful things have happened in this parliament. We’re just beginning to turn the corner. It’s because we’ve got decisions right.

I was talking to someone yesterday who said, actually, look, he was trying out this argument and said, Rishi actually, he may be a bit of a nerd, and a bit geeky. And he may not have all the great political skills. But he’s right about the big things. He was right about the furlough. He was right about Brexit. He was right about bailing out on Boris Johnson. He was right about Liz Truss. He’s right about inflation.

So actually, let’s not get rid of it, steady as you go. And then you…

Stick to our plan, which I have to say works for Conservative incumbents.

It does.

Because it implies that Labour is a bit scary, don’t take a risk. And it worked very well, for example, with George Osborne in 2015. Do you remember he spent the entire election campaign in a high-vis jacket with a hard hat on looking at people digging holes to build something? And it really worked. Look, I’ve just done that. I’m quite proud of that. That’s Rishi saying we’re bouncing back.

Got it. OK, I like that. But against the sort of safely steady as you go, you then have radical economic plans, like huge cuts in taxes at a time when the country doesn’t really believe what the Conservative party is saying. They’re trading at a heavy discount on their promises because people think they’re going. And they don’t think it matters.

So there’s that curious balance between are you trying to be reassuring and say stick with us? Or are you trying to be radical? I’m not sure that a very, very radical agenda is what wins it for them. It delights Tory activists, who are the people they’re trying to talk to. And maybe they think it pulls back people who might be minded to vote Reform. But I’m not sure that’s true. I think the Hunt model is a clearer one.

Surely also the sort of Reform-minded people are quite left on the economy, or so the polling tells us. They actually want more welfare spending and good public services.

Well, some. I think the problem is people always want… people say they don’t want tax cuts against better public services. What they normally mean is they think the tax rises should be paid by somebody else.

Yeah, right, fair enough.

So they’re normally up for tax cuts that affect them.

Sunak, we should point out, when he was actually running for the leadership against Liz Truss and was trying to tempt the Tory membership, and he was talking about income tax down to 16p in the pound, so he is a low tax Conservative, the genuine article. In his mind, he thinks is.

He thinks he is. He’s a low tax Conservative in a high tax moment.


That’s the problem. He also believes in maintaining strong public finances. And so he can’t do too much.

So the other thing that’s happened recently is that Michael Gove, another important figure who I’m not going to attempt to draw, has reversed the requirement for local councils to allow lots of house-building locally. So a whole bunch of local housing plans have been cancelled. I’m drawing all over your psephological. I’m really sorry about that, Robert.

But I think that’s quite interesting in terms of this pitch. It’s quite back to Tory basics demographically, isn’t it, to say no, local house-building near you, or less local housebuilding near you.

Well, it is. On the other hand…

No more houses.

…the country thinks we do need more houses.

Yeah, but they don’t…

Although they don’t want them in their street. But they do think you need houses. And if the Labour party is coming and saying we’re going to find ways to build houses, that could be beneficial to them. And I think it goes to the broadest point of all, which is that when does Labour win?

Labour wins when people in the country think we’re a bit stuck, nothing’s really working. We need one of those governments that’s going to spend a bit, and do a bit, and intervene. And then once they’ve done more than we like, we’ll bring the Conservatives back. But I think the whole notion of a country that’s stuck in a rut plays to the Labour party, as does the fact the Tories have been in power for 14 years.

And no house building, no NHS appointments, you never get to see a GP, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, all of this stuff.

But they are very, very, very keen to talk about the fact that inflation’s come down, right?


So that is one of Sunak’s pledges met.


In terms of growth, the supposed we’re bouncing back, green shoots stuff, GDP was… I mean, we’re no longer in a technical recession. It’s pretty anaemic, isn’t it so far?

It is. Although, as far as one puts anything on Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, they are predicting him to get a bit better over the next couple of years. But growth is the absolute key for both sides. Both sides’ entire economic and political plans rely on a growth that neither has yet specified how they’re going to get. This is the fundamental problem for both sides.

I can tell that you’re slowing down because you’re thinking, what the hell is she doing over there?

Oh no, I know what you’re going with this.

Do you?

That’s good.

What do you think? What do you think? OK, it’s got that New Labour bob going on.

If you’d gone with the black hair, it would have been…

Yeah, well, I might fill it in with black.

This is going to be Rachel Reeves, isn’t it?

It is going to be Rachel Reeves.

You know what… you know what she is? She is the iron fist of Labour because I want to come across to talk about the Labour party and this balancing act that they’ve got between some bold ideas of their own. We’ve talked about the massive housebuilding programme in terms of the search for growth. But also, this central mission, which they seem to have, which is to do with reassuring the electorate, which she is front and centre of that. Are they overdoing the reassurance?

Well, the polls suggest not. I mean, in general, oppositions need to reassure a bit. And Labour oppositions need to reassure more particularly on the economy than the Conservatives do. There are people who think that Labour could begin to be a bit more expansive about how it’s going to improve public services.

I think we’re going to hear a lot more from Wes Streeting on what they’re going to do in the health service. And that will be a useful thing. But in general I think that Labour’s safety first instincts are probably right in terms of winning the election. But then they become a problem immediately afterwards because people will still expect. People will still believe this is a change.

And saying it’s going to take 10 years is not simple. I think they’re storing up problems for themselves in government. But that’s not what they’re worried about because they’re worried about getting to government.

Yeah. They do talk about the two-term ambitions, don’t they?


Which you wonder whether that’s almost becoming an alibi for we won’t do very much. But then if you look back at the Tony Blair experience of winning that huge landslide in 1997, and then looking back on his two terms, he said the one thing he really regretted was not getting on with things immediately and not making radical…

Yeah, but Tony Blair had money to spend.

Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. That’s true.

People do think they’re paying too much. It may be true that by European standards Britain is not astonishingly heavily taxed. By British standards it is now. And people think they’re paying too much. Ordinary people think they’re paying too much tax. They don’t want to hear that the Labour party is going to come in and increase their taxes.

And they know that making very big promises on public services can only mean that. Rachel Reeves has made clear that she’s prepared to borrow more to invest.

Also, she has recently emphasised that there would be a large injection of funds into the public services from the word go.


Which do you think that’s reassuring the left? Or do you think that’s just because they feel like they’ve overdone it a bit on the sticking to Tory fiscal plans?

It depends what it means.

But crucially, Reeves has said that she will actually stick to Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal rules.


But that’s quite a sort of negative for the Labour left though.

She has played up the point about being prepared to borrow to invest.


And the restrictions on that are about what you feel you can afford and debt interest as well. Obviously, if inflation is coming down, if interest rates are coming down, she might have a bit more wiggle room. But it’s very clear that Labour, when it’s talking about its growth strategies, it’s pinning a lot on planning now.


It’s talking a lot less about its green investment strategy because obviously, we know they ditched most of that.

Oh, that’s right. Good point. OK, let’s do a big cancel £28bn.

And what was Rachel Reeves, one of her biggest messages in her big economics lecture this month was stability is our growth policy.


And that’s quite a clever political argument because it says one of the biggest problems for people investing in Britain has been this shambolic Conservative government. And so stability will get people in. And it’s not a nothing point. But it’s not an entire growth strategy in itself either, is it?

No, but the housing…

Is that Keir?

This is Keir.

That’s very good.

Do you like it? Do you like it?

I think the hairline, you’ve got the hairline just right.

Yeah, only see a little red tie, don’t I? So this is Keir Starmer doing his sort of balancing act. He’s supposed to be on a tightrope here. What do you think?

I think the tightrope will help on that.

There’s Keir on his tightrope.

I thought he was on a hobby horse.

That’s far too hard to draw. I’m not drawing a hobby horse. But so here’s Keir on his kind of balancing act because to win the election, you always need to win key groups of voters. And those are the ones you need to reassure before you promise bold things. But of course this is the Labour party we’re talking about.

And we’ve always said that the Labour party have nowhere else to go. But Rachel Reeves aligning herself too closely with Hunt potentially, a little bit too much caution. Do you not think there’s a danger of very low turnout, for example, low turnout amongst people who might otherwise vote Labour?

That’s clearly a worry. On the other hand, if you talk someone like Isaac Levido, who’s running the Conservative party campaign, his view has always been that Labour is going to stay well ahead in the polls until we actually get to the election and that you can do a lot to close the gap in a concentrated campaign. And he may have a point.

Which never used to happen. So that’s an interesting thing to point out, isn’t it, that usually, the election campaign makes zero difference to the eventual result. So it’s all about when you call it.

And it might again.

Yes. But since mid-2010s, election campaigns sometimes flip things.

They do.

I mean, not this. I think it’s hard to believe this time.

I think the scale of Labour’s opinion poll lead and the scale of collapse and support in Truss for the Conservative party is too great for a Tory defeat to be averted. But what you can avert is a collapse. You can restrict the nature of your defeat. You can make it harder for Labour in government.

I think they’re right to go on the reassurance line at the moment. You go where the voters are. The voters are in the middle. They want to be reassured. And they instinctively believe that Labour will spend more money once it’s in power anyway. So you don’t really have to persuade people that Labour will spend more on public services than the Conservatives because in the end, people think that.

So the reassurances that actually look, we may or may not spend a bit more, but we’ll be careful. We’re not going to… we’re not going to whack you with taxes. And the way you do that is by saying things like, we’ll stick to Tory spending plans. I know what you’re doing. It’s the Antiques Roadshow. Oh, that’s a lovely example.

It’s a lovely example.

In your family treasure.

This Ming vase has been in my family for a long time. Now, obviously, I’m drawing this Ming vase.

Have you ever carried it across the floor?

I’m drawing this Ming vase for the very obvious reason that is the great metaphor invented by Roy Jenkins in the run up to the ’97 election to say that the only thing that was on Tony Blair’s mind was crossing a slippery floor holding the Ming vase and trying not to let it shatter on the way to polling day. And this really seems to be…

On a tightrope with a Ming vase.

On a tightrope with a Ming vase. It was Sir Keir Starmer in a slippery ballroom with the Ming vase.

Yes. Obviously, Roy Jenkins’ point was that actually Tony Blair was so far ahead that he could have spent the whole time juggling the Ming vase and still won. One of Labour’s…

Keir can’t do that.

No, he can’t.

No, he can’t do that.

But I mean, one of Labour’s strategists said to me this argument is about being more expansive. It’s rather like finding yourself well ahead in a horse race, and then saying, well, look, we can afford to stop for a few minutes. Or we can take on some more weight because we’re so far ahead we can do whatever we like. And the truth is…

Let’s stop for a curry.

…that the really successful jockeys don’t do that. They just keep on for the line. You’ve got something that’s working. The polls say it’s working. I think one of the things that I was struck by in the last few weeks is a number of these soft focus interviews that Keir Starmer started to do. And I started to think…

About his family, Keir the man.

And you’re getting better at this, I thought. And actually, I think it’s entirely possible because his ratings are really quite low. It’s possible that people might start to like him a bit more either because they actually do like him more or because they’ve decided to vote Labour. And that self-reinforcing thing makes you decide well, I do like him.

I mean, politics is human psychology. Let’s face it.

I think it’s very hard to look at where Labour is now and say they’re getting it badly wrong in terms of electoral strategy. In terms of how they govern, that’s a different matter. But electorally, hard to argue with.

It is. So I would conclude to say in a sense, the Tories can afford to be bolder with what they’re offering, even if some of it sounds quite extreme because it’s the roll of the dice to try and save the situation. But the Labour party is still really nervous about anything that sounds too bold.

I don’t agree. I actually think that both of them should stay away from bold.


I think there is no point in the Conservatives going into the next election with lots and lots of radical promises that either A, people don’t believe, or don’t believe they’ll be there to deliver. What we want to know is that you’re back being normal, serious government, not that you’ve got another set of wacky ideas to entertain us with.

So I think it’s a terrible mistake. Must be the odd thing, of course, they’re going to promise. But actually, they’re far better off saying, we’ve had a terrible time. We’ve got out of this hole. Let’s not get back in it. Stick with Rishi. He may not be your cup of tea entirely. But he’s often right.

And I think that’s a much smarter strategy. And it’s going to be tested. They’re going to have bad local elections, potentially disastrous local elections. They could lose a couple of headline mayors. We don’t know that. But they could.

I think you’ve got something you’ve prepared for us earlier, haven’t you?

No, but there’s something someone else prepared earlier

OK, brilliant. Let’s get it.

So look at this. If I had prepared it earlier, this beautiful, silvery map of the UK, I would have been cunning enough to mark places on it so that I didn’t have to show once again that I don’t know where anything is.

Well, I mean, listen, I’ve been completely humiliated here because you’ve insisted on a proper map because you dislike my drawn map of the UK so much.

No, I liked your drawn map. I didn’t like what everybody else said about it.

OK, so the local elections are coming on the 2nd of May. It’s not just local councils in England and Wales. It’s also some mayoralties and police and crime commissioners. So I think it’s going to be quite interesting from the point of view of who’s ahead on crime. And I have actually brought one prop here, which not a Ming vase that’s been in my family.

Oh look, tough on crime.

This is a memento from the 1997 campaign. It’s the tough on crime mug. It’s looking pretty desperate. But Labour, once upon a time, managed to convince the public that they were the people to trust.

They had a handle on crime.

Oh, they had a handle on crime.


So the mayors and the police and crime commissioners, I think that’s going to be quite interesting in terms of whether Labour’s actually convincing.

I do. And I think that there are two or three contests to look at. Obviously clearly, London, where Sadiq Khan is facing re-election. The West Midlands in there.

Yeah, sort of round there.

And Tees Valley, I think that’s too low. And Tees Valley, these are three contests that are interesting. In London, Sadiq Khan, people from the Labour side are more worried about him than logically they should be, given the state of the opinion polls. But he’s running for a third term. He’s not especially popular.

The Tories haven’t put a good candidate up against him. And they’ve changed the electoral system. So there’s a bit of concern for him. In the West Midlands, Andy Street…


Given where we are… he’s a Conservative mayor… he’s managed to draw a distinction between himself and the Conservative party nationally. But if the national polls are right you would expect the tide simply to be too strong for him. Although, Andy Street has the benefit of Birmingham council, which is Labour run, going bust.

And then up here you have Tees Valley, where Ben Houchen won by an absolute landslide. I think he has something like 73 per cent of the vote last time he won. He’s a very interventionist Tory mayor, very controversial.


But nonetheless, he is the Tories in what we call the red wall, which we all think is going to fall down in the next election. So these three results in particular… there’s lots and lots of councils up for re-election. And you expect the Tories to do quite badly because that’s what happens in local elections.

Well, also, technically, the set of seats in England and Wales in the local councils that are up this time are the ones which four years ago the Tories did really well.


So they are likely to do really badly.

Yep. And the Liberal Democrats are targeting a few areas, Surrey, places like that. You expect them…


Hertfordshire. Again, places that could really worry the Conservatives if the Lib Dems do quite well in Surrey, which they may well do.

So affluent doughnut around London.

The Waitrose circle. The yellow Waitrose circle. But Ben Houchen, were he to lose I think of all of them, that’s going to panic that whole raft of already very panicked northern Tories who won their seats in 2017, 2019. And you could just see the discipline within the Conservative party falling apart on a set of bad local election results.

Conversely, if somehow Sadiq Khan loses or Andy Street holds on, you could see them think, actually, you know what, it’s not as bad as we think. And if we hold our nerve it’s all to play for. But if they go badly, internal party discipline, it could be the end of it. And I think the thing that will guarantee a Tory massacre is if people look at them and just say, you’re now a complete shambles. There’s no discipline whatsoever.

So these elections, I think, really do matter. You always have to be careful with locals, don’t you, because they give you a false picture.

You do. Turnout’s lower.


People who turn up to vote are more motivated. They generally like to send a message of we’re annoyed to whoever’s in control. And that sometimes means whoever’s in trouble locally, but often the government as well.

But I think these ones, because they’re in election year, and we know the election is so close, they will have a direct impact back at Westminster. Rishi Sunak and his team will be watching these with terrible nerves. It’s going to be a very, very nervous night for them on May 2nd.

OK, well, I’ll see you again in the shed to discuss the fallout from the May election.

Fallout, I like it.

I’m going to adopt my New Labour mug. Cheers.


Very good health.

Oh no, I cracked it again.


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