Is Rishi Sunak trying to lose the general election?

Meme by Sadie Parker

Nobody who was serious about winning the general election and forming the next government could possibly campaign like Rishi Sunak and the Tories have done in these first few days of the general election… could they? It was called on Wednesday, May 22, 2024: the day the government launched its resilience initiative and told us all to assemble three days of rations, just in case we were hit by floods, famine, or flying gimmicks masquerading as Tory policies.

Rishi Sunak standing there at the podium in the pouring rain outside Number 10, asking the country to love him, is now an internet meme. All semblance to a scene from a Richard Curtis rom-com vanished when, with impeccable comic timing, anti-Tory corruption protestor Steve Bray played Labour’s 1997 anthem, “Things Can Only Get Better” by D:ream, as the soundtrack to the PM’s big announcement.

‘Integrity’ and ‘accountability’, two of the elements of Rishi Sunak’s three-pronged promise on the steps of Number 10 on his first day as prime minister, went out of the Overton Window long ago. Now it was the turn of ‘professionalism’ to breathe its last. The jokes wrote themselves.

“Drowning Street”

“Things can only get wetter”

“Drip, drip, drip…”

Rishi Sunak looked like a drowned rat by the end of the ordeal. Why hadn’t he used the briefing room that Boris Johnson had commissioned a Russian-owned firm to build, at the eye-watering cost to the taxpayer of £2.6m ? The sight of Keir Starmer making a statement about the longed-for general election inside, in the dry, only seemed to underscore the folly of a man who claims to have a plan choosing to stage one of the biggest moments of his life without a brolly when rain was forecast.

In one of his first TV interviews of the campaign, the prime minister admitted flights shipping asylum seekers to Rwanda would not now take off. Proof that this colossally expensive policy, costing hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ pounds, plus thousands of hours of MP and ministerial time, that could have been better invested elsewhere, and the integrity of our parliamentary system that has been abused to pass “a dog is a cat” law, was only ever a gimmick to create a so-called ‘wedge issue’ (one that is very divisive) with Labour.

Calls emerged immediately for Sunak to pay up the £1,000 he owed to Piers Morgan, having bet him Suella Braverman’s dream would come true and flights would take off to Rwanda laden with hapless migrants before the election. Sunak refused, hiding behind the technicality of one migrant having gone to Rwanda voluntarily with £3,000 of taxpayers’ money in his pocket (and then having disappeared into the wind) on May 1, 2024. Not a good look. The £1,000 was after all for charity and Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, recently topped the King in the nation’s rich list, their fortune having grown by £120m last year.

Tory MPs were not best pleased. Sunak had even gone over the heads of the Cabinet, approaching the King to ask him to dissolve parliament before meeting with them to discuss it. The prerogative to call an election is one of the most powerful a prime minister possesses. Normally they might be expected to call one when they have the best opportunity to win. The Tories are 20-25 per cent behind in the polls and have been for some time. What’s more, the party is nowhere near ready with candidate selection. At the point the election was announced, they had around 190 candidates to find. The IT system they use for candidate management was down for more than five hours over the weekend, with the deadline for application being early on Monday, May 27, 2024.

Could Sunak have shot the Tories in both feet, knees, and crucially, the head, in calling this election? Some Tory MPs went slightly mad and instantly started plotting to oust Sunak, replace him with Penny Mordaunt, and cancel the election. As entertaining as the spectacle might have been for the political punditry, frankly, there just wasn’t enough time. The rebels had run out of road. Levelling Up Minister Michael Gove praised Sunak’s courage, then announced he was standing down. Fellow Brexiter and health minister Andrea Leadsom, who once thought she’d make a better prime minister than Theresa May because she was a mother, followed suit. At the time of writing, 83 MPs elected as Tories in 2019 are standing down (three are now independent). More may follow. The deadline to nominate candidates is June 7, 2024. James Heale, writing for The Spectator, has calculated that the Tories need to find a new candidate every 100 minutes between now and then. By way of contrast, Labour has its act together and only needs to find around 30 candidates. Starmer increasingly sounds like a man with more of a plan than Sunak.

For his next trick, Sunak embarked on a whirlwind tour of the four nations, stopping first at a brewery in Wales where in an effort to get down with the workers, he asked if they were looking forward to the Euros, a football competition the Welsh national team has not qualified for. Our prime minister is tee-total, so he could hardly blame alcohol for his gaffe. At a warehouse in Derbyshire, Sunak was caught out answering staged questions from Conservative councillors posing as ordinary voters. In Scotland, Sunak flew into a row over whether calling an election for July 4, 2024 was disrespectful of Scotland where school holidays begin on June 28. Hundreds of families who had booked holidays for the first week of the school break would now have to scramble for a postal vote. Next stop: Northern Ireland. People could hardly contain their surprise when Sunak posed against a backdrop of steel grey skies alongside Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris (who is standing down) in the Titanic Quarter. Yes, the actual Titanic, which – fun fact – set sail from Sunak’s hometown of Southampton. Was CCHQ sending us a coded message?

It emerged on Friday evening that Sunak intended taking Saturday off for ‘meetings’. Oh, dear. Were we in for another of his knee-jerk resets already? Taking Saturday off to strategize wasn’t playing well on Twitter, so he campaigned a little in his home constituency of Richmond and Northallerton (which he is at risk of losing to the Labour candidate, Tom Wilson). Then courtesy of a helicopter ride from a wealthy donor, Sunak hot-footed it to Wimbledon for a photo-op shaking hands with someone on their doorstep. And that was the England leg of his four-nations tour done.

Meme by Sadie Parker

We could all relax, push politics to one side, and enjoy our Saturday evening. Or so we thought. Then around 22.00 hours, a bonkers story dropped —

Sunak announced the return of National Service. Yes, the same National Service a Number 10 spokesperson vehemently shot down on January 24 this year, when an army general called for it and which one of his own defence ministers, Dr. Andrew Murrison, had ruled out a little over 48 hours earlier.

Mark Pritchard, Tory MP for The Wrekin, asked on May 15, 2024:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, whether he has made an assessment of the potential impact of the reintroduction of national service on national security.”

Dr. Andrew Murrison replied on May 23 (i.e. the day after the election was called):

“The Government has no current plans to reintroduce National Service. Since 1963, when the last national servicemen were discharged, it has been the policy of successive Governments that the best way of providing for the defence of our country is by maintaining professional Armed Forces staffed by volunteers. The demanding, increasingly technical, nature of defence today is such that we require highly trained, professional men and women in our Regular and Reserve Armed Forces, fully committed to giving their best in defending our country and its allies.

“If potentially unwilling National Service recruits were to be obliged to serve alongside the professional men and women of our Armed Forces, it could damage morale, recruitment and retention and would consume professional military and naval resources. If, on the other hand, National Service recruits were kept in separate units, it would be difficult to find a proper and meaningful role for them, potentially harming motivation and discipline. For all these reasons, there are no current plans for the restoration of any form of National Service.”

(source: Hansard)
Meme by Sadie Parker

Perhaps after Labour announced votes for 16-year-olds earlier in the day, the Tories felt like they had to announce a youth policy too. Yet they seem to have found this one on the back of an envelope in David Cameron’s recycling bin. He announced a similar policy initiative in 2014. Last week the Tories wanted to save our youth from the perils of smoking and smartphones, this week they’re planning to militarise them and put a gun in their hands. That’s quite a journey, policy-wise, and begs the question: do the various elements of the Tory party talk to one another? Steve Baker, self-styled ‘Brexit Hardman’ and a Northern Ireland minister, suggests not.

“I don’t like to be pedantic but a Government policy would have been developed by ministers on the advice of officials and collectively agreed. I would have had a say on behalf of NI.

But this proposal was developed by a political adviser or advisers and sprung on candidates, some of whom are relevant ministers.” (source: Twitter)

Mikey Smith at The Daily Mirror got hold of the Tory briefing note for the National Service proposal. Of the roughly 700,000 British 18-year-olds at any given time, only 30,000 would serve a year with the armed forces. The rest would ‘volunteer’ one weekend a month for a year (which the government somehow added up to 25 days) at the NHS, the Fire Service, or as Special Constables. Compulsory volunteer work for no pay. Where have we heard that one before? Slavery, anyone? The briefing note also suggested young people who refused to take part would be arrested.

Home Secretary James Cleverly, sent out to talk up the new policy on the Sunday politics shows, was forced to re-write the policy in real time, saying of course kids wouldn’t be arrested and sent to court. (How could they? The Tories have asked the Police not to arrest so many people, the criminal courts are backed up due to 14 years of chronic underfunding, and the Tories are letting violent criminals out early because they have not invested in building modern prison facilities.) So how would this obligation be enforced, persisted pesky reporters? Those were mere details that could be worked out by a Royal Commission.

Cleverly gave as the rationale for the scheme that kids these days are stuck in their bubbles and national service would give them the opportunity to meet other kids from different postcodes. So, a bit like sport, or cultural activities, or travel, or any other number of avenues of opportunity for youth to mingle that the government has steadily slashed the funding of, or else stymied in some way?

Britain’s most obnoxious headmistress, Katherine Birbalsingh, came out in favour of the policy, citing France as an example — never mind that France abolished national service 28 years ago. Right-wing pundit Iain Martin was on slightly more solid ground by citing Nordic countries. However, this too was a tad disingenuous as Nordic youngsters tend to get something in return for their national service, like free university tuition. The policy also brought out the worst right-wing types who are constantly down on the young. Surprisingly, former Defence Secretary and supposedly one of the better Tory MPs, Ben Wallace, was among them. “Heaven forbid young people are made to do something…” he tweeted. “What, like a year of lockdown to protect people your age, Ben?” was my wry reply. Thousands of people have replied less politely. The man has been ratio’d and deservedly so.

Over the past 14 years, young people have seen tuition fees trebled, their right to live, work, and study abroad in 27 countries without impediment stripped from them, and their hopes of ever owning a home of their own blasted into the realms of the impossible. Over 120,000 youngsters work as carers for poorly parents. Others have Saturday jobs to help the family finances. Still others help single parents look after younger siblings. It’s not like many of them are not working and contributing already.

By Tory estimates, this scheme will cost £2.5bn. Experts have already pointed out that this is a massive underestimate. New housing and training facilities will have to be built on military bases to accommodate the anticipated 30,000 volunteers per year. This would raise issues of inequity, as some of the housing for the existing professional members of the armed forces is sub-standard. However, let’s just stick with £2.5bn figure. The government claims £1 billion would come from cracking down on the estimated £6bn in tax evasion and the other £1.5 billion would come from closing the Shared Prosperity Fund, a key pillar of the Tories’ flagship Levelling Up policy which was intended to (in part) replace lost EU structural funds.

Wait, what? Has the government just admitted it is cancelling Levelling Up, having done very little of it in the first place?

The loudest critics of this policy are on the right.

“Speaking as a Conservative,” politics professor and right-wing pundit Adrian Hilton told Carol Vorderman on her LBC radio show, “I think it’s crass, ill-thought-out, and completely insensible.”

Admiral Lord West, former First Sea Lord,

“I’m delighted if more young people become aware of defence and are involved… but this idea is basically bonkers.”

This sentiment was echoed by Mail on Sunday right-wing journalist Dan Hodges, who claimed, “Rishi Sunak’s plan for compulsory national service is the most insane policy proposal ever launched in an election campaign by a major political party.”

Meanwhile, the President of Young Birmingham Conservatives Harvey Whitby resigned in protest and joined the Liberal Democrats.

After another staged event at the Barracuda Stanmore restaurant where Sunak dropped in to surprise locals, who just happened to include his wife and several Tory councillors, he must have reviewed the criticisms overnight. The Tories came out fighting with new developments. If anyone wanted to work in the public sector, they would have to prove they had done their national service – a policy suggestion that might see our already understaffed public services struggle even harder to recruit the workers they need. Additionally, if a young person refuses to obey the Tory edict for compulsory volunteering, then their parents will be fined. Fining parents for the activities (or lack thereof) of their adult offspring is a new departure for the Tories and smacks of something Stalin might have done. Genius!

After that catalogue of disasters, anybody could be forgiven for thinking Rishi Sunak is deliberately throwing the election. If you would like to help him to fulfil his dream of returning to live in California, here are key dates to remember:

In many constituencies, the only way to send Rishi to California is to vote tactically. please get ready to consult!