Why Rishi is trying to act like Tony Blair – and why it doesn’t suit him

Tony Blair, Rishi Sunak
Sunak – while he may be seeking to imitate Blair's 2005 focus on encounters with the public – may not quite be blessed with his predecessor's campaigning chops - Stefan Rousseau/AFP

“How do you sleep at night, Mr Blair?” demanded Marion, a nurse from Brighton. Maria from Essex leapt out of her seat and shouted that the prime minister was talking “rubbish”.

To all the world it looked like a Valentine’s Day massacre as Tony Blair was grilled by the public on Channel 5 in a programme that aired on the evening of Feb 14, 2005. “Anyone else like to come and have a go?” the prime minister asked at one point.

But it was actually all part of a plan. The Labour Party’s campaign in 2005 deployed a twin-prong strategy in which Blair hid from the press as much as possible while exposing himself to the wrath of the public.

The idea was that the then prime minister, whose personal ratings had taken a pummelling following the second Iraq war, should bear the full force of the public’s ire in the hope of persuading voters he understood their concerns and taking the sting out of their opprobrium. The strategy was also designed to overcome accusations of spin and slipperiness.

Tony Blair appears on Channel Five Chat show The Wright Stuff
One guest on The Wright Stuff had to be led back to her seat after her challenge to Blair - PA

Political strategists are beginning to wonder whether the Conservative Party has taken a leaf out of the New Labour playbook. Within hours of calling a surprise summer election in a downpour earlier this week, Rishi Sunak was making a series of appearances all around the country. The Conservatives’ online advertisements, which put Sunak front and centre, also suggest that the party is planning a presidential-style campaign.

Is the Prime Minister, whose approval ratings are the joint worst for any political leader going back to 1978, equivalent to John Major and Jeremy Corbyn’s record lows in 1994 and 2019, also deliberately charging the guns of adverse public opinion? Will answering repeated questions about illegal migration, illegal parties, high taxes and the ruinous cost of living help lance long-festering boils?

“It seems clear that Sunak wants this campaign to be very much about him,” says Sir Anthony Seldon, the historian and prime ministerial biographer. “You very much got that impression from the first speech and its focus on furlough and his other achievements. He also seems to be resisting the calls of Mordaunites [supporters of Penny Mordaunt, the Commons leader] for her to have a similar role to Angela Rayner [Labour’s deputy leader] in the campaign.”

The run up to the 2005 election was the first campaign in which Labour eschewed press conferences and the traditional “battle buses” to carry politicians and a phalanx of journalists around the country. The Sun newspaper instead hired a helicopter so its top political hacks could chase Blair and Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, around the country.

At the time, the infamous tensions between Blair and his broody neighbour Gordon Brown were at their worst. Apart from one very strained photo opportunity in which Tony Blair handed Gordon Brown a 99 ice cream, the twin suns of the New Labour project were rarely seen in each other’s orbit. Campaign managers knew the press were interested in one question only: “When are you going to hand over to Gordon?”

Instead Blair favoured TV appearances over interviews with the written press, deployed a slick digital strategy when such tactics were still in their infancy, and at times cut out the media almost entirely by taking questions directly from voters.

Tony Blair (L) answers questions from the audience during an appearance on an exclusive Sky News broadcast on March 30, 2005
Members of the public give Blair a piece of their mind on Sky News - Getty

Some political commentators have suggested it demonstrated Blair’s innate understanding of how politics was merging with celebrity culture, in which the path to rehabilitation often involves submitting to ritual humiliation and a display of contrition.

“The so-called ‘masochism strategy’ was a period when we took a deliberate decision for Tony Blair to engage far more with voices critical of him and his policies than his cheerleaders,” says Alastair Campbell, who was Labour’s campaign director for the 2005 general election and had previously been the prime minister’s spokesman.

“The thinking was both that people want to see the arguments tested but also that it would show he had thought things through and was prepared to stand up for what he believed. We focused on the more difficult interviewers and in some cases asked them to build audiences made up of people who disagreed.”

Tony Blair meets shoppers in Shipley, Yorkshire
In 2005, Tony Blair's team eschewed press conferences in favour of engaging more directly with the British public - Stefan Rousseau/AFP

It’s early days in the countdown to July 4 but the initial signs are that Sunak – while he may be seeking to imitate Blair’s 2005 focus on encounters with the public – may not quite be blessed with his predecessor’s campaigning chops. On day one, Sunak travelled from a rally in Derbyshire to Barry in Wales and then on to Scotland. His first appearance was at a biscuit distribution centre in the marginal constituency of Erewash.

Here he gave a stump speech to a group of people who appeared to be employees of the business. It quickly transpired that two of the men who were dressed in hi-vis jackets and asked softball questions of the Prime Minister were actually Conservative councillors, one of them from a different county.

At the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery later the same day, Sunak made his first gaffe when he asked workers whether they were looking forward to the football this summer, apparently unaware that Wales failed to qualify for the Euro 2024 tournament.

Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Rishi Sunak speaks with brewery workers during a visit to the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery in Barry
Rishi Sunak's visit to a Welsh brewery was not without incident - Henry Nicholls/AP

While Sunak appears to have launched himself into meeting the public around the country, Campbell isn’t convinced that he has shaken off a politician’s temptation to stage-manage events. “[Our approach] was the opposite of what Sunak seems to be doing, in speaking to tame audiences and getting questions planted as a way of avoiding genuine media scrutiny,” he says.

“If Sunak is adopting the same policy as Blair in 2005, I’m not sure it’s wise,” says Seldon. “There’s some overlap between the two but they are also very different. Sunak has that Wykehamist, public schoolboy, going over the top with his troops style. But Blair was empathetic to his very fingertips – a supreme and proven communicator.”