Following Neil Kinnock’s infamous Sheffield pre-election celebration, the Labour agent, later a Labour MP, was buoyant entering the hall and similarly boasted not only about their success in Scotland but of the Labour government to come. But, as exit polls and the first counts came through, his smile was gone and Scotland was left to face another five years of Tory rule.
Mentioning that to an old Labour friend and saying I was sensing similarities now, he agreed. Labour looks a shoo-in, but Rishi Sunak’s steadying and there’s a long way to go. It’s still odds on the Tories will lose but, at a minimum, it’ll be a lot closer than Labour currently expects and it’s not impossible that Sunak will do a John Major.
Sunak’s first few appearances at the Despatch Box saw him look like a rabbit caught in the headlights. But he’s got over that and now appears far better. It’s amazing what a few wee breaks can do to boost confidence. The Windsor Agreement was an early win for him. Seeing off some of the European Reform Group nutters in his party and receiving plaudits from across the board has also helped.
It’s still two steps forward, one step back for the Tories, as more sleaze is exposed or snouts caught in the trough. But they are firming up. They could still be blown asunder by internal division, but Boris Johnson has been exposed and threats of mutiny by his supporters have receded. Sunak will welcome the opportunity to put further distance between him and both Johnson and Truss. They were the old, hated Tories, he’s the New Tory Suave Guy.
Tory strategy’s clear. They’re playing a long game and can run until January 2025. They need to see energy prices and inflation come down, then they’ll be ready to go to the polls. They’ll argue the damage was global and caused by Putin’s war, but they’ve resolved it and changing PMs would only spook the market. Best stay with the smooth banker, than risk the boring lawyer. Who, after all, knows the markets best and has their trust?
Labour’s strategy’s to be the same as the Tories, just not them. No corruption, less incompetence and nastiness but much the same on policy. That’s fine so long as the Tories remain toxic. But as with Major, who shrugged off the Thatcher legacy, if they can do the same, they’ve hope.
If Sunak can show he’s not the Tories of old and he’s competent, he’s got a chance. TV debates between Sunak and Starmer will be rivetingly boring but will suit him and he’s got the prestige of being PM.
There’s also the red meat for Tory support, both Red and Blue Walls: anti-immigration, anti-woke, and law and order. It infuriates many liberal-minded people, but the Tories are playing to the 40 per cent who are interested in them and don’t care. Turn them out and they can deliver. Meanwhile, for radicals, it’s hard to spot the difference, so why vote for either? Anyone hoping for the Labour cavalry coming over the hill to save Scotland should think again.