Why Sunak could not risk playing his boldest hand

Rishi Sunak launched the Conservative manifesto at Silverstone race track on Tuesday
Rishi Sunak launched the Conservative manifesto at Silverstone race track on Tuesday

Anyone hoping Rishi Sunak’s choice of Silverstone for the Tory manifesto launch meant he would go full throttle with tax cuts and a withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), might have been disappointed with the document he produced.

Like any F1 driver though, Mr Sunak knows you can’t win the race if you crash halfway through it.

Unlike Theresa May, who failed to anticipate the trap Labour would spring by turning her social care plan into the dementia tax in 2017, Mr Sunak has looked at his policies through his opponents’ eyes and junked anything that they could turn against him.

So while his commendable plan for National Insurance and stamp duty can be sold as a tax cut for working people, he knew that abolishing inheritance tax – as those on the Right of his party had urged him to do – would be framed by Labour as a giveaway for the rich.

Mr Sunak saw an even bigger danger in the way such a cut would have to be funded.

Benefits reform – resulting in a £12 billion reduction in the welfare bill – is where most of the money for the £17 billion of promised tax cuts will come from.

It doesn’t take a tactical genius to spot the potential for Labour to claim that cutting benefits to fund inheritance tax reform would be robbing the poor to help the rich. Posters of Mr Sunak dressed as the Sheriff of Nottingham would have been on billboards by the next day.

Should he have gone further on threats to leave the ECHR, as Reform UK say they would do?

The manifesto’s language on the ECHR is deliberately woolly, saying only that: “If we are forced to choose between our security and the jurisdiction of a foreign court, including the ECHR, we will always choose our security.”

Why didn’t Mr Sunak just go the whole hog and say the Conservatives would pull out of the ECHR if it blocked flights to Rwanda?

The answer to that lies in his own party: the issue of leaving the ECHR is one of the most divisive of all among parliamentary candidates (formerly known as MPs) and Mr Sunak cannot risk a ruinous civil war on the eve of an election.

The phrasing allows Mr Sunak to face both ways: he can tell those on the Right of the party that he has made it clear he is prepared to leave the ECHR if it comes to it, while the sizeable One Nation group of centrists can be told there is no commitment to leaving the ECHR.

Divided parties, of course, do not win elections, and Mr Sunak is straining every sinew to keep his arms around what is effectively a coalition of Right-wing groups.

Labour’s response to the manifesto is to accuse the Tories of making £71 billion of unfunded tax cuts. The Conservatives can live with that: parties accusing each other of making unfunded promises is standard fare for elections, and voters will zone out from what will be white noise to them.

Sir Keir Starmer even resorted to accusing Mr Sunak of producing a “Jeremy Corbyn-style manifesto” where “none of it is costed”, apparently forgetting that Sir Keir backed the infamous 2017 manifesto and called it a “foundational document” for Labour. In other words, Labour is struggling to land a blow on the Tory manifesto.

The problem for Mr Sunak, though, is that the restrictions that have hemmed him in have left him with a manifesto that would have been perfectly adequate for a party that was ahead in the polls, but which is unlikely to deliver the breathtaking manoeuvre needed to overtake Labour.

Mr Sunak’s best hope now is that Sir Keir Starmer, who would have lapped the Prime Minister by now in a Silverstone Grand Prix, will blow up his own engine as he approaches the chequered flag.