Jeremy Hunt's very odd speech proves the Tories are doomed
OCTOBER 24 2024. Mark the date in your diary because it could well be when the next General Election – and possibly Nicola Sturgeon’s “de facto” referendum on Scottish independence - take place.
While Rishi Sunak could stretch out Westminster’s parliamentary session until January 2025, no politician or voter really wants a campaign that runs into the cold, dark winter months; especially in Scotland. The “Brexit election” in December 2019 was an exception and the only poll to be held so close to Christmas since 1923.
Next year, October 24 is the last Thursday before the clocks go back and so would enable the Prime Minister to give his government as much time, and light, as possible to try to turn the economy around before the bleak, chilly nights begin to draw in.
Time, as Jeremy Hunt acknowledged last week, is not on the Conservative Government’s side and it is as much in hope as in expectation the numbers will begin to tick up enough into positive territory to give the Tories a fighting chance in 20 months’ time.
As Cabinet members digested some dire internal polling numbers over dinner during their away-day at Chequers, who should serve up a dessert of warm optimism to the disheartened gathering but Lord Hague, former party leader, who lost badly to Tony Blair in 2001, ex-Foreign Secretary and Sunak’s mentor and predecessor in the Yorkshire seat of Richmond.
We’re told he regaled his colleagues with how before the 1992 election John Major’s Government was beset with problems, from economic ones to party divisions and sleaze allegations but managed to turn things around to beat Labour. “All is not yet lost but it’s up to you,” declared Hague.
Afterwards, one Cabinet minister seemed to have lapped up the dish of optimism, telling The Times: “This doesn’t have to be 1997; it could be 1992.
“But it’s up to us to make that happen. If we come across as exhausted, divided and miserable, then we’ll lose. But if we’re united and show we still have real desire and belief in making Britain a better place, then we can win. He told us that voters can tell if you’ve really got that.”
Also at the Buckinghamshire feast was Isaac Levido, the election strategist overseeing the Tories’ 2024 campaign, who told Cabinet members that it was imperative to stick to the PM’s five pledges: to grow the economy; cut national debt; halve inflation; ensure England’s NHS waiting lists are falling and stop the Channel boats. Some are more difficult than others with the latter priority seeming the most intractable at present.
While the internal polling is generally bad – most snapshots have Labour a good 20 points clear – Levido stressed there was still at least 18 months to the election and much of the Opposition’s lead was soft. There was, remarkably, even a suggestion that on economic competence, the Conservatives had regained their lead; which will worry Keir Starmer and his comrades.
One Tory MP told the FT: “Isaac has pushed this idea that there is a very narrow path to victory for the party but it's possible to scrape a win. He says the strategy could work but it requires no screw-ups on the part of the party.” What are the chances?
That “very narrow path” requires another vital element: party unity, which looks to be in increasingly short supply among the blue team.
Liz Truss, remember her, is said to be preparing to make an intervention ahead of the Chancellor’s Ides of March Budget on the need for tax cuts to boost growth. But last week Hunt made clear the UK Government must maintain a “disciplined approach” on public finances to bear down on inflation and so there was little chance of any significant tax cuts. He argued the Government’s promise to halve the inflation rate was the “best tax cut right now". Hardly music to right-wing Conservative ears.
Indeed, he made clear if there were any tax cuts before the next election, businesses would get priority to boost Britain’s “long-term prosperity”. Of course, from April Corporation Tax will rise from 19% to 25%, bringing in £18bn.
With industrial strife continuing, double-digit inflation, Government borrowing rising to a record £27.4bn high in December, the OBR warning of slower growth and lower tax revenues than expected, business confidence at a two-year low and recession, by all accounts, just around the corner, Hunt dismissed misplaced “gloom,” decried “declinism about Britain” and insisted Britain was ready to take advantage of its Brexit “freedoms” to become a new world leader.
However, this Panglossian glow will be hard to find elsewhere this week.
On Wednesday, just as the strikes intensify Sunak will mark his 100th day in office with a speech at the centenary dinner of the 1922 backbench committee. The PM’s food-taster will be on overtime.
A day later, the Bank of England is expected to announce another base rate rise, possibly as much as 0.5%, taking it to 4% and piling more financial pressure on households in a bid to get inflation down.
Then on Friday, in what could be the most unhelpful intervention of all, Nadine Dorries, the outspoken ex-Culture Secretary, will have stars in her eyes when she interviews, yes, Boris Johnson in the first Talk TV chatshow. What could possibly go wrong? Everything.
While senior Tories are professing optimism and are fervently hoping they can indeed emulate the Major administration’s 1992 victory rather than its 1997 landslide defeat, the polling maestro, Professor Sir John Curtis, has administered a timely corrective dose of realism.
On Sunak staying in Number 10, he has explained: “History suggests it’s going to be extremely difficult, just simply because no government that has presided over a fiscal financial crisis has eventually survived; 1948, 1967, 1976, 1992. It’s not a happy litany of precedence.”
In which case history also suggests that the PM and his struggling administration, for all their desperate search for economic sunshine, look set to be doomed - come October 2024.