Through the dying months of Boris Johnson’s government and the 50 helter-skelter days of Liz Truss, many Tory MPs yearned for stability and competence. Now that Rishi Sunak has staked his premiership on these qualities, another issue is on their minds: what, exactly, do the Conservatives stand for?
With the party seeking to distil its message before the general election, increasing numbers of Sunak’s MPs are starting to worry that his trademark brand of sober managerialism might end up seeming barely distinguishable from Labour’s offering.
This is particularly pertinent with the economy. The Truss brand of steroid-enhanced Thatcherism provided very obvious ideological distance from Labour, but had the drawback of being unpopular with voters and financial markets.
The inevitable about-turn saw Truss appoint Jeremy Hunt as chancellor, and Sunak retained him to preside over a technocratic mix of promises to protect public services and largely stealth-based tax rises.
This has steadied the markets and is predicted to bring down inflation, but it has left many Conservative MPs asking themselves how, or even if, the direction of travel would be very different under Keir Starmer.
“We’re really boring right now and while that’s fine after the last few months, it’s not sustainable forever,” one Conservative former cabinet minister said. “We need to differentiate ourselves from Labour ahead of the election otherwise people will question what the point is of us.
“At the moment everybody thinks we’re all offering the same thing, especially on the economy. I think Rishi and Jeremy get that but I’m not sure what their answer is. People in my constituency who are longstanding Conservative voters think we’ve turned into a bunch of socialists. We need to give the red wall a reason to vote for us.”
One shadow minister said he had even taken to joking with Conservatives: “How will you feel in opposition when there’s a Labour government more rightwing on the economy than you’ve been?”
The obvious choice for previous Conservative governments would be to stress economic competence, but that is not an option as voters still reel from the higher mortgage payments of a post-Truss era.
Other old favourites are also no longer much use. “We had Brexit, Boris and Corbyn as a recipe for a victory [in 2019] but now those are either impossible to use again or very difficult,” another former cabinet minister said.
While Sunak regularly talks about Jeremy Corbyn to attack Starmer, the ex-minister said Tory MPs “groan” at this attack line. “He’s yesterday’s man.” The electorate appears to agree, with polls suggesting the public are well aware of the differences between the two Labour leaders.
In a portent of what could be a particularly ugly general election to come, many Conservatives MPs instead expect Sunak to embrace a tough stance on immigration.
“We have to drive that issue hard, whether it’s from legislation, announcing new partnerships abroad, targets for swifter deportations with strong language – at the end of the day, it doesn’t even really matter if it all gets stopped in the courts or the House of Lords,” one Tory said.
But there is a concern among others in the party that pushing immigration as an issue could simply place the spotlight on government failures, unless there is a dramatic decrease in small boats crossing the Channel or flights to Rwanda begin taking off. “We don’t have much more than the language to go on,” one MP admitted.
Rob Ford, a professor of politics at Manchester University, said focusing on immigration would be unlikely to help the Conservatives at the next election, beyond as a defence against a potential “extinction-level event” in which a Nigel Farage-backed party took a chunk of the Tory vote from the right.
“If you cut your teeth in politics any time between about 2000 and about 2016, then your firm view is going to be: immigration is a winner for the Conservatives, it’s an issue voters care a lot about, and voters don’t like it,” Ford said. “All the way through that period, all those things were true. Arguably, none is true any more.
“Tory MPs think it’s 2014 again, but it’s not. All the voters who were likely to shift into the Conservative column based on the issue of immigration already did so in the period between 2016 and 2019.”
Other potential wedge issues for Sunak could be new police powers to crack down on environmental protests, or efforts to link Labour to a wave of forthcoming public service strikes. However, polling indicates that on both issues, views tend to be broadly split on party grounds, giving little scope to attract new Tory support.
Finding the right area could be problematic, Ford said. “What you want is an issue where you’re more credible than Labour, where voters have longstanding anxieties about Labour, and you’re actually in a position to do something. And that’s not very easy for the Conservatives at the moment.”
It is not all gloom for Tory MPs, however. With the more professional approach in No 10 has come the acceptance, even from backbenchers not naturally supportive of Sunak, that he has done well to reach out to the various factions, including invitations for MPs to Downing Street to watch the football or for dinner.
The chief whip, Simon Hart, is described as “really plugged in”, telling his whips to be in listening mode to pick up early signs of any potential splits.
Plus, of course, finding political dividing lines is not a one-way process. There is also some disquiet within Labour about how the party uses the next year to develop a coherent narrative about the election, one that Starmer aims to keep focused on the economy.
While there are plans for “pledge cards” for five key policies on the economy, childcare, crime, the environment and the NHS, some senior advisers worry there is not yet a thread connecting them, let alone an easy turn of phrase that MPs can use to sum it up.
In terms of attacks on the government, some coherent themes are developing, notably Starmer’s regular refrain at prime minister’s questions that Sunak is a “weak” leader at the mercy of his backbenchers and vested interests.
Similarly consistent is the line on the Conservatives’ economic record, summed up by the Truss-referencing motto about “12 years of Tory failure, followed by 12 weeks of Tory chaos”.
What concerns shadow ministers and Labour MPs more is a sense that the party’s positive message lacks a theme, with recent days seeing an announcement on abolishing the House of Lords, Starmer’s CBI speech on immigration and skills, and other messaging about local government budgets and a windfall tax.
“I think we need to find a narrative and stick to it for at least a week,” one ally of Starmer said.
And while the major parties seek their major differentiating themes, there is a risk of overlooking issues that voters are hugely struggling with, from soaring rents to concerns about private water companies releasing sewage into Britain’s waterways.
However carefully the parties might plan their messages, these will inevitably be buffeted by events. “I can guarantee that there is no government grid for the week that has gone to plan for years,” one Conservative MP said.