How Rishi Sunak's Latest Attempt To Reboot His Failing Premiership Fell Flat

Rishi Sunak delivers a speech on national security at the Policy Exchange.
Rishi Sunak delivers a speech on national security at the Policy Exchange. Carl Court via Getty Images

We may not have a date for it yet, but be in no doubt that the general election campaign has well and truly begun.

Rishi Sunak has seemed to be everywhere in the past week as he desperately tries to narrow the huge poll lead Labour has enjoyed ever since he entered 10 Downing Street in October 2022.

But there remains little sign that his latest attempts to move the political dial rightward will be any more successful than what has gone before.

Take Monday’s setpiece speech at the Policy Exchange think-tank, for example.

It was trailed by No.10 as an attempt to create a clear dividing line between the PM and Keir Starmer on national security.

But the speech itself, delivered in the drab monotone which has become Sunak’s hallmark, veered from defence to health to education to AI without an apparent connecting thread.

As a result, it was instantly forgettable, as subsequent opinion polls have demonstrated.

A despairing senior Conservative told HuffPost UK: “The issue with Monday’s security speech was the same as the issue with the speech on immigration and again with the speech on the steps of Downing Street about community relations - nothing came after it.

“Where was the follow up? The policy announcements? The recurring theme and language from the government - at all levels and on all platforms - to ensure the message landed?

“Where was the hard work and discipline needed to make sure that the prime minister’s words weren’t just spoken, but they were actually heard and absorbed by the country?

“Who is in charge of his grid to ensure messages land rather than just get lost? We’re going to struggle to get anything across in an election campaign if Number 10 persist in thinking a single speech is enough to reframe the debate on any particular issue.”

HuffPost UK has also been told that Downing Street officials were “in absolute despair” over the speech’s content and how it looked on TV, with the PM in suit and tie standing at a government lectern against a Policy Exchange branded background.

By contrast - and further confirming that the starting gun has been fired on the election campaign - Starmer’s own big speech of the week was carefully pitched to make him look like a prime minister-in-waiting.

Having been preceded by speeches from key members of the shadow cabinet, Starmer prowled the stage tieless and with his shirt sleeves rolled up.

For a man who has rightly been pilloried for being too staid and boring, this was something of a radical departure.

He was also relaxed as he handled questions from journalists, brushing off suggestions that his New Labour-style pledge card made him a copycat Tony Blair.

“The first thing I’d say about Tony Blair, other than he took his tie off at big events, is that he won three elections in a row,” the Labour leader said.

“Everybody has been trying to say which leader are you most like, who do you have secretly tattooed on the inside of your arm – it is none of them.”

Keir Starmer stands in front of a screen displaying his six election pledges during the launch event in Essex.
Keir Starmer stands in front of a screen displaying his six election pledges during the launch event in Essex. Leon Neal via Getty Images

Sunak’s week got worse as he was monstered on Loose Women, a show aimed at a key demographic that the Tory leader will need to win over if he is to stand any chance of being re-elected in the autumn.

Wearing the pained expression which forms on his face whenever he is challenged, the PM was asked by Janet Street-Porter: “Why do you hate pensioners?”

He fared little better when, after being asked about what his government is doing to tackle child poverty, he responded by talking about the challenges posed by social media.

The final confirmation that we are, to all intents and purposes, already in an election campaign came on Friday with Jeremy Hunt’s speech accusing Labour of having a £38 billion black hole in their spending plans which can only be filled by higher taxes.

Jeremy Hunt reacts as he delivers a speech attacking Labour.
Jeremy Hunt reacts as he delivers a speech attacking Labour. HENRY NICHOLLS via Getty Images

“Every single Labour government since the 1970s has increased the tax burden,” he said.

“But Conservative governments never do so by choice. And we have never accepted such decisions need to be permanent.”

Many people, however, pointed out that it is Hunt himself who has created the conditions in which the UK has been left with the biggest tax burden since the Second World War.

And Hunt didn’t do himself any favours by admitting that he had increased taxes by £20 billion a year shortly after becoming Chancellor.

With the general election most likely stillsix months away, voters should brace themselves for many more weeks like this one.

Rishi Sunak will need to pray that they are more successful for the Tories than the last seven days have been.