Week-in-Review: Rishi Sunak’s spluttering election campaign
relies on unknown unknowns

Week-in-Review: Rishi Sunak’s spluttering election campaign relies on unknown unknowns

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Rishi Sunak’s shock decision on Wednesday to opt for a July election didn’t exactly galvanise his Conservative colleagues in parliament. The prime minister’s sodden speech outside Downing Street, set to New Labour’s 1997 election anthem, set a seriously low bar for the following days’ campaign events — but one, as gaffes piled up, that Sunak has insisted on missing. 

And so Westminster wonders: just how watertight was the political logic informing Sunak’s summer election gamble? Were the manifold “unintended consequences” of an early poll, from the expedited Conservative MP exodus to soon-to-be realised the selection nightmare, not actually distinctly foreseeable? Why does Sunak seem so shocked by the election he himself called, in theory, after months of preparation? 

Of course, weaponising the element of surprise is a prominent feature of election politics; and Sunak has played his last remaining incumbency card to catch Labour off guard. But this strategy relies on the Conservative Party at large seizing the moment. So far, at least, even Sunak has failed to rise to the challenge. 

Another reading would frame this election as a culmination of the PM’s political frustrations. After a string of failed relaunch attempts, Sunak’s final strategy is the absence of one: he plans to berserk his way to an improbable victory. 

In sum, Sunak has recognised that the Labour Party — unless things change radically between now and polling day — is on course for a landslide victory. The prime minister’s response to this challenge, an electoral Everest, is to restyle himself once more: now as a radical, insurgent force. That was the essence of Sunak’s deferred response to Stephen Flynn’s pointed questioning at PMQs on Wednesday: no Westminster, I am not “feart”. As such, Sunak’s address outside No 10 was an exercise in style over substance — it’s why the muffled, soggy result has proved so crippling politically.

The analysis informing the PM’s broader approach is, after all, pretty surface-level. In calling an early election, No 10 tacitly accepted that the key trends in SW1 were becoming too predictable — and commentators, as a result, too comfortable. Politically detrimental narratives had set in and, worse still, been left largely unscathed by the prime minister’s rolling relaunches. 

Sunak’s summer election strategy is informed, as well, by his understanding of the broader political landscape. British politics in recent years has been historically volatile; since 2015, our electoral geography has aligned, realigned and de-realigned. No “settlement” has truly settled in; Sunak hopes this phenomenon will soon prevail over Keir Starmer’s ascendancy. 

That said, Labour’s lead over the Conservatives has remained remarkably consistent since Sunak became prime minister — and especially since the start of this year. Accordingly, while it is certainly true that the electorate remains volatile on a fundamental level, any further pendulum swings seem more likely to come after an election.

Crucially, ahead of Wednesday’s shock developments, it was reportedly noted in No 10 that the very act of calling an election could shift British politics’ stubborn dial. At the very least, it was concluded that the numbing predictability of an autumn election — preceded by party conference season and a final fiscal statement — would merely have deepened the Conservative rot.

In time, No 10 hopes that an intense campaign will inspire the commentariat to reconsider its deeply-held assumptions about what is and is not inevitable. Sunak’s strategists think the big immediate gain of holding a general election is that, at once, it forces the choice, seizes the initiative and reframes the debate. The narrative of Conservative decay and decline will now reckon with other talking points. 

Why Keir Starmer’s battle for Scotland is so crucial this election

As the election unfurls then, the bottom line is this: Sunak’s campaign relies on rewiring politics by weaponising every shade and sub-genre of “unknown”. 

This is one (admittedly convoluted) way of explaining why the prime minister wants to face Starmer in a full six debates. It’s a clear manifestation of Sunak’s plan to turn the campaign into a circus of uncertainty — allowing the “ming vase”-clutching Labour leader ample opportunity to err.  

An election debate, once agreed between parties, is a political commodity we are entirely mindful of, even accustomed to. As such, leaders’ debates are — to borrow from former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld — known unknowns. We understand the relevant questions: “How will Starmer fare?”, for instance. But we can’t yet form concrete conclusions as to how the debates will affect the campaign. (Elections are rife with known unknowns — think campaign events, interviews, manifestos etc; arguably, they’re no less than the key dynamic that dictates the trajectory of campaigns).

But known unknowns are only part of the equation here. There exists an even more politically potent sub-genre of uncertainty — one rather more fitting of Sunak’s election strategy. I refer, of course, to the unknown unknown: developments which we do not foresee because they are unforeseeable. 

By definition, to even hazard a guess at an election unknown unknown would be to acknowledge it belongs in some other category. But rest assured: they will arise frequently, and in all manner of forms, throughout six weeks of intense campaigning. It is an observation that begs an important question: does uncertainty offer Rishi Sunak a path, however narrow or slim, to victory? 

To answer this, it’s first worth reflecting on the scale of the prime minister’s task. As The Financial TimesStephen Bush pointed out this week, recent polling suggests Rishi Sunak is about as unpopular as John Major circa 1994 and Jeremy Corbyn in 2019. It means, even if Sunak’s standing with the public improves by as much as Corbyn’s did during the 2017 election, he would still be more unpopular than Major in 1997 or Gordon Brown in 2010.

This analysis indicates just how drastically things need to change for the Conservatives if the party is to avoid an electoral disaster: a few campaign curveballs, simply put, won’t save Sunak. 

Indeed, for the Conservatives to win, essentially every major development over the next six weeks needs to progress according to the Conservatives’ best-case scenario. For Sunak at this election, no factor is itself sufficient to success — but just about everything is necessary. 

As such, while we can’t predict unknown unknowns, it is possible to consider how they might register and feature within the current terms of debate — depending on their political gravitas. For instance, given the scale of the Conservatives’ poll deficit, it seems seriously unlikely that any singular “event” (dear boy) will change the outcome of the election. But even more pertinently, there is no guarantee that unexpected developments will actually benefit Sunak as the campaign underdog. The opposite may be true, in fact. 

Take the prime minister’s much-mocked visit to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast yesterday. Technically, this episode would fit our definition of  “unknown unknown”, as an entirely unforced — if limited — blunder courtesy of Sunak’s comms operation. 

In the end, the gaffe has received so much attention in the past 24 hours because it befits a common view of Rishi Sunak as “bad at politics” and his nascent campaign as hapless. These points then roll into the broader election backdrop, defined as it is by Tory decay and decline. 

Now consider the alternative reality in which it was Keir Starmer, not Sunak, who visited the Titanic Quarter yesterday. Yes, a few jokes from Conservative spokespeople might have resulted. But would the visit get referenced on the BBC Ten O’Clock News, as Sunak’s was? Unlike the PM’s political vessel, Labour is not considered to be a “sinking ship”. The jokes, in short, don’t write themselves; you would have to possess external political motivations in order to do so. 

One lesson from this thought experiment is that political “optics” are easier to get right when one is already far ahead. A more striking takeaway, however, is that while uncertainty may offer Sunak a path to victory, it is more likely to manifest to his detriment. Unknown unknowns have a better chance of registering if they befit a narrative, rather than contradict one. It’s a seriously inconvenient truth as far as the Conservatives are concerned, given the tenor of political commentary at this juncture. 

It’s also the same reason that, according to political folklore, a bacon sandwich torpedoed Ed Miliband’s hopes of ever becoming PM. The widely ridiculed pictures confirmed a common view of the then-Labour leader as, well, weird. (Of course, unknown unknowns do not only arise as gaffes; think also major geopolitical incident).

A final point worth stressing is this: although Sunak has sought to harness uncertainty this election, he is not a naturally unpredictable or agile politician. Sure, he has frequently altered his political emphasises as prime minister; but such pivots have been, to put it mildly, inelegant — not to mention fast-forgotten. (Remember when Sunak was going to run this election as the “change candidate?”).

In the end, Rishi Sunak’s plan for this summer election was to defy political gravity. But the first few days have brought the prime minister crashing down to earth. 

A major Conservative defeat, barring some radical macro-political shenanigans, lies ahead.

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our free daily newsletter here.



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