Sunak heads north after a flurry of Tory policies fail to move the dial in the polls

Estimated read time 5 min read

Rishi Sunak is heading to north-east England for a rare foray into the “red wall” after a campaign that has so far focused on shoring up the Conservatives’ older, more affluent southern base.

The prime minister has spent much of the first week of the general election campaign speaking to voters in the south of England who are considering Reform UK, targeting them with a range of policy announcements including the return of national service and tax breaks for pensioners.

This week’s policy blitz has helped steady the Tory campaign after an error-strewn first few days. But many in the party are concerned it is overly defensive and unlikely to win over the kind of wavering Tory-Labour swing voters who are probably going to decide the election.

Rishi Sunak (C) with James Daly (L), the Conservative candidate for Bury North talks with East Lancashire Railway volunteers on a train heading for Bury train station during a Conservative general election campaign event on May 31, 2024 in BuryView image in fullscreen

Lee Cain, the founding partner of the public affairs and communications consultancy Charlesbye Strategy and a former Boris Johnson communications chief, said: “This is about firming up the base, beating back Reform and ensuring that defeat isn’t as bad as it could be.”

Another former Downing Street adviser said: “The first play on national service was about shoring up the Tory vote and shooting the Reform fox. It wasn’t about Labour and framing it as a two-horse race. There isn’t an overarching message and narrative yet.”

Sunak’s first week of campaigning began badly, from the initial rain-soaked election announcement; to asking Welsh voters whether they were looking forward to a football tournament their team had failed to qualify for; to holding an event in Belfast’s Titanic quarter, inviting the question of whether he was captaining a sinking ship.

Many in the Tory party blamed the teething problems on Sunak’s decision to hold the election in July rather than autumn, as advised by his chief strategist Isaac Levido.

Rishi Sunak feeds lambs with Rowlinson’s Farm owner Rachel Rowlinson as he visits the farm during a Conservative general election campaign event on May 31, 2024 in Gawsworth, MacclesfieldView image in fullscreen

A former Tory election strategist said: “It’s quite the thing to catch yourself off guard by calling your own snap election.”

The person added: “Isaac will do his best, but feels like he’s fighting a campaign where they made all the choices he wouldn’t have made.”

On Saturday, however, the prime minister largely retreated from the campaign trail, spending much of the day at home in his Yorkshire constituency and in London speaking to advisers before a flurry of policy announcements.

Those policies, which have been rolled out at pace over the past seven days, have also included harsher penalties for fly-tippers and a crackdown on “low value” degree courses.

“It was definitely an attempt at a reset,” said one Conservative insider.

The rethink worked, to an extent.

The leader of Reform UK Richard Tice and honorary party president, Nigel Farage shake hands at a press conference in LondonView image in fullscreen

The new policies have helped reshape the campaign narrative, and they have proved individually popular. Polling by YouGov for the Times this week showed 75% of voters back raising the income tax threshold for pensioners, while 47% support scrapping university degrees where graduates tend to earn lower salaries.

The problem is, the pledges have failed to move the headline polls. The Guardian’s poll tracker shows the first week of campaigning has succeeded in narrowing Labour’s 21-point lead by 0.7 percentage points.

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Joe Twyman, the co-founder of the polling company Deltapoll, said: “There has been no significant change in the polls between when the election was called and now. The voting intention is static, but also the key figures on leadership and economic management are also static.”

On the trail itself, observers say Sunak has cut an energised but occasionally nervous figure, perhaps stung by his own early missteps. While out holding question and answer sessions, he has frequently disappeared to huddle with his advisers and hold what he has been calling “prep sessions”.

One thing the prime minister has been preparing for is the live televised debate against the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, which will be held on Tuesday night.

Conservative advisers believe the format will suit Sunak, who has an excellent grasp of detail and is often at his best taking quick-fire questions on a range of topics.

Nick Fox, 35, asked Rishi Sunak about Partygate during Q&A during Sunak’s visit to a firm in Milton Keynes.View image in fullscreen

But while the prime minister is unlikely to be tripped up by an unexpected question, he has been criticised in the past for failing to show sufficient sympathy towards voters with complaints about the way the country is being run. Sunak was criticised this week for his reply to a voter who said his mother had died during the Covid pandemic, only for the prime minister to point out in his characteristic upbeat way: “It was probably in that same period of time that you got to know me as chancellor.”

Some Conservatives fear this tendency could backfire if confronted next week with a question from an audience member with a grievance.

Even if Sunak outperforms Starmer on the debating stage, most pollsters and campaign experts believe it is unlikely to make a difference to the election result.

“The Conservatives are behind on both leadership and economic competence, and it has never been the case that a party has gone from that position going into a campaign and come out with most seats,” said Twyman.

Cain said: “All elections are either about change or more of the same. The overwhelming strategic mistake the Conservatives have made is to go into a change election as the status quo candidate.”

He added: “Sunak has at times sought to portray himself as a change candidate, but the problem is his communication needs to match his actions. They talk about having a plan, but what exactly is the plan?”


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