Express & Star

Andy Richardson Column: Rishi Sunak lacks aim as he hedges his bets on a general election

And so the starting gun has been fired. Except the starting gun hasn’t been fired at all. While Rishi Sunak could have been bold and nailed his election colours to the mast, he instead decided to hedge his bets. Oh well, once a banker, always a banker, and all that.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak isn't sure what target he is going for

The UK will go to the polls in Autumn this year. Unless it goes to the polls in Spring. Or summer. Or, if it’s really, really unlucky, at the start of next year. And voters will have the chance to decide whether they want the same party that’s given us austerity, Brexit, and Liz Truss, or the party that’s got a technocratic leader with a personality bypass. Ah, decisions, decisions. Don’t we just love them. In truth, the choice between Sunak and Starmer isn’t as awful as the thorny dilemma that was Corbyn v/s Johnson. There are clear dividing lines between the two incumbent leaders. And it’s about policy, first and foremost, rather than personality, which neither possesses much of.

And isn’t that a joy. As we look across the pond at the spectre of Trump 2.0, at home we have a more-straightforward choice between a right wing party that’s moving ever further to the right, and a left-wing party that’s moving ever further towards the centre. Elections tend to be won by those in the middle ground, and by those able to demonstrate economic competence, which makes Rishi’s direction of travel all the more puzzling.

Still, we’ll get the usual pre-election sweeteners, if the PM’s hints about an autumn election are true. We’ll be wooed with tax cuts when Jeremy Hunt delivers his next budget. And if we’re really lucky, they’ll be tax cuts that actually make us all better off – rather than the last set of tax cuts, which somehow coincided with the highest level of taxation in almost every living taxpayer’s life.

The Green agenda will be particularly important to younger voters, at a time when the planet is warming and when ministers have been seeking to make the environment one of our culture war issues. Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer have both rowed back from green pledges, at a time when they might more sensibly be rowing forward, investing in renewables, and developing technological solutions that we can export around the world.

The MP Chris Skidmore recently quit his job as an MP after watching the Government renege on key commitments. The important point here, is that Mr Skidmore was the minister who signed the UK’s 2050 net zero commitment into law as an energy minister under Theresa May. He’s seen the direction of travel and decided enough is enough. A Government committed to cleaning our precarious environment doesn’t sign new oil and gas licenses that will take many years to come on stream, he pointed out.

And so voters will go to the polls again for a by-election, as they will in Wellingborough, following the disastrous ousting of the scandal-hit Peter Bone. Given Labour’s ability to overturn Tory majorities of 24,664 in Mid Bedfordshire and 19,634 in Tamworth, what chance have they got of hanging onto Mr Skidmore’s narrower 11,220 majority, near Bristol?

Rishi Sunak has had time to turn things around, following the departures of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. He hasn’t, however, and polls suggest things are getting only worse. Back in August, more people thought there’d be a Tory majority than a Labour one. That changed at the end of last summer and Tory hopes have receded ever since. There’s been no substantial uplift in the polls and ever those who think Rishi will secure a small majority are in a dwindling band. Labour, in contrast, has seen both an uplift in the polls, with consistent leads of 15-20 points. They’ve also seen an increase in public confidence, with higher and higher numbers of Tory and Labour voters now believing Sir Keir will be the next man into number 10. The latest figures show 45% of voters think Labour will secure a majority, against 8% who think the Tories will, with just over 20% expecting a hung parliament and others saying they don’t know.

So even if it is in Autumn this year, Rishi Sunak knows the odds of success are increasingly stacked against him.

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