Rishi Sunak was greeted with relief and five-star reviews when he took over as prime minister, but it was not long before everything he touched seemed to go wrong. Journalists seemed determined to make things look bad, to fit the story of an exhausted government stumbling towards its inevitable demise.
I was reminded of Gordon Brown as I watched Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. For the last year or so of his time in government, Brown struggled to shift the momentum against him. Yet he put up a good fight at the end, even though it all looked lost, and managed to stop the Conservatives winning a majority.
If Sunak could do the same, limiting Tory losses at the election to secure a hung parliament, he should deserve the undying gratitude of his party. He won’t get it, but he would deserve it.
While heading to the G20 summit in India, Sunak told reporters he is “hungry to win” the next general election and that the rest of Downing Street is “fired up”. Different prime ministers deal with adversity in different ways. Brown fought it; John Major complained about it. At Prime Minister’s Questions, I saw Sunak change from one model to another. He started off as a Major, telling Keir Starmer that “before he jumps on the next political bandwagon, he should get his facts straight” about the history of spending on school buildings.
He sounded like a prime minister doomed to go down to landslide defeat, complaining that the universe was conspiring against him, just as Major thought it was unfair that the voters should be inveigled by Tony Blair’s big smile into ignoring the sunlit uplands of Tory economic recovery.
But then, as Starmer got stuck on a list of “crumbling schools”, Sunak transformed from Major to Brown – he fought back. The prime minister looked as if he was enjoying himself, as he claimed that “Captain Hindsight” had never mentioned the schools capital budget before, and he defended the Conservative record on education – producing “the best readers in the Western world”.
It was mostly nonsense, but the trick in the House of Commons is to explain, confidently and lightly, that you have considered your opponent’s arguments and that they are, unfortunately, bogus. Sunak did it with a sideswipe at Starmer’s “prepared scripts”, from which the Labour leader reads his questions with his head down. He said that Starmer hadn’t listened to any of the answers, which was untrue, but conveyed something of the plodding style of his adversary.
If Sunak’s answers were nonsense, his defence could be that Starmer’s questions were too. The supposed scandal of dodgy concrete in schools is a trivial story, except for the few pupils in 24 out of the 24,000 schools in England who have had to go back temporarily to remote learning. But any news that can be co-opted to a “dying days of an exhausted government” story arc will be magnified, as Brown discovered.
Who now remembers the collapse of civil order in October 2007, when two CDs containing child benefit information for 25 million people went missing? Nothing happened, and they are still lost, but for several days it was the worst thing that had ever happened in the history of British public administration.
Brown had several such crises and then a big real crisis when he bailed out the banks. He dealt with it about as well as it could have been dealt with, and yet had to fight a constant media narrative of “dying days” and failure.
The lesson of that time is that David Cameron and George Osborne were all over the place. First they opposed the nationalisation of the banks and then, when they realised that every credible economist thought it was the right way to avert a deep recession and to save jobs, they quietly accepted it. Then they demanded deep spending cuts to balance the books, before they realised that such talk of “austerity” was frightening the voters and put up a poster of Cameron declaring: “I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS.”
This gave Brown the chance to fight back, clawing his way from 15 points behind in the opinion polls a year before the election to seven points behind on the day. That was enough to produce a hung parliament, and to make a continued Labour government theoretically possible if Nick Clegg hadn’t gone the other way. The benchmarks keep shifting, not least because Labour can expect to win seats in Scotland again, but if Sunak can narrow the Labour lead in share of the vote to about four percentage points, a hung parliament is likely.
Starmer and Rachel Reeves are playing a more consistent game in opposition than Cameron and Osborne. This may sound strange, given how far and how fast they have shifted position over the past year, but they are consistent in that every change has been designed to avoid scaring the voters with tax rises.
Yet those changes also open up the vulnerability of Starmer’s pitch, which is that his conversion to Tory spending plans simply won’t be believed. Labour shadow ministers ran into the problem constantly in interviews about crumbling schools: how would they pay to fix them? Their answers, mainly that the last Labour government planned to spend more, amounted either to “we wouldn’t have started from here” or to magicking economic growth out of nowhere.
Sunak could end up like Major. He has a Majorish tendency to peevishness when challenged, especially on his personal integrity. The narrative of a government that has been in power too long, a spent force stumbling from calamity to hopelessness, could gather in intensity. But nothing is fixed. He also has a chance to copy Brown, to claw his way back by doing the right things and earning enough grudging respect at the ballot box to even the score.