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Rishi Sunak will start the year as he means to go on: spending more time in key marginal seats, telling ‘ordinary’ voters how he is helping them by cutting tax, taming inflation and curbing welfare. The accuracy of his claims is open to question (both tax and welfare numbers are still rising) but the idea is that selected audiences, rather than combative journalists, will ask the questions. Major had his soapbox; Sunak has his livestream.
While the interrogators might have changed, questions remain about Sunak’s message for voters. One minister admits to being ‘baffled’ by the recent flurry of ‘confusing’ resets which seemed to lack any common thread. Sometimes No. 10 emphasises change; at other times continuity is stressed instead. Will the next election centre on a fifth Conservative term or a ‘new age of Sunak’? Does the Prime Minister represent a refresh, or more of the same? At times, it seems even he is not sure.
Last October, for example, he told his party conference that he would end a run of ‘30 years’ of failed politics. Six weeks later he exhumed David Cameron and made him Foreign Secretary. Sunak promised ‘honesty, not obfuscation’ in a speech on net zero, yet talk of telling ‘hard truths’ is difficult to sustain when he claims to have ‘cleared’ an asylum backlog that stands at almost 99,000 claimants. Aides complain of not knowing whether they will be fighting a 2015 or a 2019-style campaign. ‘Are we the Establishment or an insurgency?’ asks one.
No issue better demonstrates this than the Rwanda Bill, which is expected to return to the Commons in a fortnight’s time. The concern on the left of the party is that it will breach international law and renege on the UK’s global commitments.