Summer recess is normally a time when politics takes a rest for a couple of months, and MPs focus on minor things like, I don’t know, serving their constituents. But this is a recess like no other, because far from worrying about replacing a collapsing garden wall for the local shouty man, the eyes of MPs are instead on the battle for Number 10 as it plays out in front of our eyes. As such, The Word From Westminster has cancelled its summer holiday, put away the sun tan lotion, and will be with you throughout July and August, bringing you the latest in all things Rishi vs Liz.
Part of what makes the contest enthralling is its asymmetry. The gap in the polls suggests that if this was a football match, Liz would already be 2 or 3 goals up, and quite happy to sit back and play it safe, while Rishi has to throw caution to the wind and go for goal. This has led to his becoming a tad desperate and probably making things worse for himself. Sunak’s debate performance on Monday raised many eyebrows, as he frantically berated and interrupted the comparatively calm Truss. Sunak has always seemed composed and statesmanlike before, and the sight of his irritable swipes and constant speaking over his opponent was unedifying. Gender inevitably made the optics of the performance worse, and overnight many opinion pieces, social media posts, and even Members of Parliament, were accusing Sunak of the dreaded ‘mansplaining.’
Putting style and delivery aside for a moment, Sunak is also struggling on the policy front. Lower taxes is an important part of conservative ideology, and is a desire that unites most members. Truss is offering that after years of Tory rule which failed to deliver it. Meanwhile, Sunak persists with the argument that we can’t have tax cuts now because that will drive borrowing and inflation. That view is not without merit, but this is an election campaign for goodness sake Rishi. Give the voters their unicorns, not grim reality checks, have you not done this before?
It seems someone has finally told Rishi this, because hey presto, a u-turn arrived in the post on Tuesday, with a promise that he will actually cut taxes afterall, pledging a slash in VAT on energy bills. Team Truss have jumped all over the u-turn, which is surely a signal of Sunak’s desperation as he fights to get back in the race. And perhaps it will convince a few voters, but if this race is really going to be won on tax cuts, Sunak is already miles behind. There is no point begrudgingly promising someone a slice of bread when your competitor is offering a whole loaf. To win, Sunak needs to frame the race differently, as about something more than who will return us to low tax governing; he can’t out-Truss Truss there.
That is the problem for Sunak in a nutshell. The debate is all on her terms. He is trying to go on the attack, but in the end is having to defend, scrambling for new policies to show he is a true conservative rather than putting Truss on the back foot and making her have to do that. For Sunak to win, he needs a change of topic. Whether the debate becomes about Ukraine, about experience, about the likelihood of beating Starmer, about personality, any of those would be preferable. He just can’t spend the next eight weeks arguing about taxes against a person who wants to cut more than him, in front of an audience gagging for some good ol’ fashioned fiscal conservatism.
Change the tune Rishi! Or your chance is gone.