Rishi Sunak and the The End of the Tories

Rishi Sunak Launches The Welsh Conservatives General Election Manifesto

Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The British general election campaign, which will come to its shambolic conclusion on July 4, is not about policy. The opposition Labour Party’s message is simple: “Change.” Not change you can believe in — just change, any change. The election is about 14 disastrous years of Tory rule, about austerity and Brexit and the pratfalls of Boris Johnson. Public services are collapsing; housing is a mirage; pay is stagnant; trust in politics is shattered. One hundred years ago, Britain ruled a fifth of the globe, and in the century since has largely been in “managed decline.” Now we are in unmanaged decline.

Pollsters predict a huge victory for Labour, led by Sir Keir Starmer, a former human rights lawyer. One poll says the Tories will win only 53 seats out of 650. Some even predict the end of Toryism, the ideology that has guided what has long been known as “the natural party of government.” Yet for all the talk of how the party has failed, much of the election has focused on one person, as if it were a presidential campaign. At first, I thought the Tories were committing an error. Now I think it is cynical and deliberate strategy: no one else wants to be involved. Keep the target small. And Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is only 5’6.”

On May 22, entirely by surprise, Sunak announced the election. The political class had expected autumn when inflation figures might be better, and Tory staff and MPs had been told to book summer holidays. But Sunak changed his mind. Perhaps he feared the armada of migrant boats that cross the Channel in summer and the subsequent headlines from the right-wing press. (So far, his attempts to deport migrants to Rwanda — a policy grandiosely known as “the deterrent” — have failed.) He told no one beyond his immediate circle, not even the cabinet. The party infrastructure wasn’t ready for a general election while hyper-cautious Labour have been ready for months. My guess is that he had had enough. Sunak, a sheltered hedge funder with a very rich wife, has been praised all his life. Now he gets only grief from a fractious party and a hostile media.

And so, Sunak stood outside Downing Street to call the election and face his nemesis. Rain dripped down his jacket and soaked his hair. He looked so miserable I wondered if, subconsciously, he wanted to lose. Theresa May, one of Sunak’s many predecessors in the last 14 years, said she would have used an umbrella. The Tory discipline had gone.

The first days were an omni-gaffe. People wondered if Sunak’s advisers wanted him to lose. He was pictured on an airplane by an exit sign. He campaigned in the Titanic quarter in Belfast. (Inevitably he was asked: “Are you captaining a sinking ship?”) He went to a brewery in Wales, and asked workers if they were looking forward to the European football championships (Wales didn’t qualify). He made a campaign speech with his back to the cameras. He was peevish and grumpy, or, when lively, condescending and out of touch. When asked what he lacked as a child — 30 percent of British children live in relative poverty — he groped for an answer and landed on Sky TV.

It got worse.

The British consider the Second World War to be “our finest hour,” and its soldiers “the finest generation.” For good or ill — the victory both gilds our sense of exceptionalism and compounds our stasis — it is our most cherished national myth. On June 6, Sunak left the D-Day commemorations in Normandy early for a television interview, leading to an outcry. Old people — the only voters he has left — were furious. MPs with suddenly precarious seats tried to flee the deluge. Johnny Mercer, the veterans minister, called it “a mistake.” Penny Mordaunt, a leading centrist who stood against Sunak in the leadership election, called it “very wrong.” The former Tory advisor Ian Acheson resigned from the party, saying, “I can’t get over how unfeasibly, terminally thick the people advising the PM are,” adding that the only alternative explanation was that it was “an act of deliberate sabotage.”

Sunak has become a human punching bag, and this is both funny and unpleasant. He inherited a ruin and now he is a sin-eater, while those more responsible for Britain’s demise slink away. David Cameron, a patrician in the old style (“Call me Dave” was his catchphrase, though now he is Lord Cameron), was the architect of the austerity regime and the smug godfather of the Brexit vote. Then there was May, felled by Brexit (she couldn’t get a deal through Parliament), then Johnson, who won an 80-seat majority to “get Brexit done” in 2019, but felled himself by lying to Parliament about parties in Downing Street during the pandemic and is now a lifestyle columnist writing about chorizo and lawnmowers. There was Liz Truss, prime minister for 49 days, last seen trying to break into the American conservative infotainment complex (a headline from The Guardian summed it up best: “Fair to say America isn’t gripped by Liz Trussmania”). And then Sunak: the winner, and now loser, by default.

He might lose his own constituency: Richmond and Northallerton in Yorkshire, a quarter of whose voters are military families. He is challenged there by a candidate who calls himself Count Binface because he wears a bin on his head. Binface pledges that, “to combat the UK’s increasingly wet climate, all British citizens to be offered stilts” and “to build at least one affordable house.” “Rishi, you might have shirked D-Day, but you won’t be able to avoid B-Day,” Binface said, when he launched his campaign. “In just under a month’s time, the Solar System is going to host the contest to end all contests. It’s Binface v Soon-Axed.” Binface already has an endorsement from the Daily Star, the tabloid that put a camera on a head of lettuce to see if it would outlast Liz Truss’s premiership. (It did.) The Star thinks Binface is just four points behind Sunak. It’s remote but possible.

Sunak’s biggest opponent, of course, is Labour, under new management after Jeremy Corbyn’s leftist experiment failed in 2019, as such experiments always do, because Britain is a constitutional monarchy, not a pre-Marxist utopia. Labour is led by “No Drama” Starmer, who once considered being a flautist. His taste for Union flags — he travels with one — speaks to Britain’s wounded national pride. By emphasizing competence, humility, and a willingness to listen to people’s troubles — his mantra is “You’ve got one mouth and two ears” — and refusing to say anything about wealth redistribution or Brexit, he is winning back Johnson’s socially conservative working-class voters in their millions.

Starmer presents as unimaginative. He says he doesn’t have a favorite novel or poem, never had a childhood phobia, and doesn’t dream. But I think this persona is deliberate. A Labour strategist told me that working class swing voters are so disconsolate, even the concept of hope upsets them. “No Dream” Starmer sounds good.

Then there are the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party, which were in coalition with Cameron’s Conservatives from 2010 to 2015 and were thus punished with annihilation. They are pro-Europe, pro-environment, and pro-civil liberties, and they siphon off protest votes, stealing liberal Tories from Sunak in southern England. Their campaign is superficially mad. Leader Ed Davey has been photographed riding a bicycle down a steep hill, bouncing down a waterslide, riding the teacups at a theme park, and falling off a paddle board on Lake Windermere. It seems like the Liberal Democrat campaign is a piece of satiric performance art aimed at the British media. They’re trying to see if any old stunt can get on the front pages. And it turns out it can.

Yet more deadly for Sunak is the rise of Reform UK, a right-wing insurgency that grew out of the Brexit Party. Their poster boy is the populist Nigel Farage, who is often photographed clinging to Donald Trump. (Farage has said, “He has learned quite a lot from me.”) He likes to dress in mid-century post-colonial chic — Panama hats and blazers — like Hollywood’s idea of a British villain. Reform UK stood down against Boris Johnson in 2019, but the Sunak campaign has no such luck. “I’m back,” smirked Farage, paraphrasing the Terminator, and his anti-immigrant, anti-elite message is peeling voters off the Tory right. Some polls even have Reform leading the Tories on national vote share. Farage is a spectacle: a half-remembered imperial dream assembled from constituent junk parts. Racists love him. As a member of the European parliament, he waved a tiny Union flag in the chamber in Brussels — the kind you put on a cocktail olive.

Facing this array of enemies, the Tories have struggled to cobble together a coherent strategy. They couldn’t paint Starmer as a woke-sodden member of the metropolitan elite: he is from a humble background, and when he was chief prosecutor he was an authoritarian. The Tories liked him, and they said so. They couldn’t call Sunak a change candidate — as John Major was in 1992, after the Tories knifed Margaret Thatcher — because he brought David Cameron back to the front bench and made him foreign secretary.  They settled on calling Sunak “bold” and making him say, “Stick to the plan or we’re back to square one” a lot. The voters’ response is: What plan? And if we’re not back to square one already, where are we?

The Tories decided the dividing line with Starmer was taxes. At the first TV debate in June, as part of his party’s new “manifesto,” Sunak shouted that Labour would raise taxes by £2000.  Tories released a video of a big red tax pig flying over Britain, like a Pink Floyd concert gone wrong. The message didn’t take. Polls say the public are not fixated on tax cuts at the moment, but Britain’s beleaguered public services. The manifesto was so boring political obsessives fantasized about a secret, better version to attract Reform voters, with bullet points like war with France. There wasn’t one.

The ads have backfired. One using the line “Starmer Sutra” – a joke about U-turns that showed the Labour leader contorting, as in the sex manual — was an accidental boon for Labour, because it made Starmer look interesting, though briefly. When the Conservatives tried to sell election mugs with the plea that “once they’re gone, they’re gone,” they were turned into gleeful anti-Tory memes. One Tory campaign poster showed Starmer being welcomed by tyrants: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Xi Jinping. Labour supporters merely circulated a photograph of Putin shaking hands with N. R. Narayana Murthy, IT billionaire and Sunak’s father-in-law.

Where is Boris Johnson, the Tories’ best campaigner? He’s on holiday, of course. He hates Sunak, believing that his resignation as chancellor of the Exchequer in 2022 toppled him. And what does he care for a Tory Party he no longer leads? In all, 75 Tory MPs are not standing for re-election, so many that party staffers had to ask them to stagger the announcements to avoid the appearance of a stampede. This is not because they know they will lose, said Hugo Rifkind of The London Times. It’s because they don’t know what they’d do if they won.

The Tories have now sucked in the country’s fatalism. It was reported that that Sunak was even losing rural Tory voters, or “horse people.” Sunak’s own campaign literature doesn’t use the Tory blue, as if he seeks to detach himself from the party he leads. Andrea Jenkyns, a Johnson loyalist, put Nigel Farage’s face on her leaflet. I last thought about Jenkyns in 2022, when she gave the middle finger to protestors outside Downing Street and was later promoted to education minister. That’s a Johnsonite Tory for you.

Like the unlucky boy in the fairytale, even animals desert Sunak. When he fed sheep with Lord Cameron, the sheep ran away. “Rishi Sunak trying to control his party,” said a Labour ad, in a video of Sunak with marauding sheep. “Ewe can vote for change.” For balance I must add that Honey the psychic eagle, who predicted England’s victory over Serbia at the Euros, flew towards a picture of Sunak when asked who would win the election. GB News called this “a boost to the Tory Party’s campaign.”

Sunak seems to have stiffened in the process. He has got better as he cares less about losing. But his party continues to combust: it is alleged that multiple Tory candidates and staffers — among the few who knew the date of the election in advance — placed bets on it, and they are being investigated by the gambling commission. Nick Mason, the chief data officer, has taken a leave of absence. So has the campaign director Tony Lee. (“Who knew,” asked a Labour candidate happily, “they had a director of campaigning?”) Sunak likes to stand on podiums that say, Stop the Boats. Memes renamed it: Stop the Bets. A Tory ad said: If you bet on Labour, you can never win. It was deleted.

Old hands in British media call this a rolling goat fuck. The question as we reach the end is not who won’t vote for the Tories but who will. Remainers hate them because Brexit happened. Brexiteers hate them because Brexit has failed. Liberals hate them because they are tough on immigration. Right-wingers hate them because they are not tough enough. Those who hate public services think taxes are too high. Those who love public services think they do not work. Young people hate them because they have no housing. Old people hate them because Sunak left ghost troops on the beaches of Normandy. They have no constituency left.

Whatever transpires, the morning of July 5 will see a battle for the wreckage of the Tory soul. I want to believe that the Tory ship will right itself and Reform will retreat to the edges, where its voters are. I want to say the British will become realistic, effective, less prone to dreaming, less bewitched by class. We are in crisis, and, at last, as if waking from enchantment, we know it. But I live here, a country where even now, as with Brexit, politics is about repressed emotion not conscious thought. After Sunak is gone, I expect Britain to grapple, as ever, not with its real future but its imaginary past.

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