From those in the Downing Street machine, this week’s budget was a climax of what has arguably been the most successful months for any Prime Minister in some time. In the last three weeks alone, we have seen the Windsor Framework (which will be voted on following PMQs next week), the publication of the Illegal Migration Bill which aims to overhaul the UK’s asylum system, the trip to France where the PM struck a deal with Manuel Macron on small boats, the coordination of the HSBC bail-out of Silicon Valley Bank UK, A whistle-stop tour to San Francisco to celebrate the AUKUS relationship with a new shiny nuclear submarine deal, and a budget that aimed to define the economic mission of Sunak’s Government.
So then, immigration, national security, finalising Brexit, and a budget aimed at galvanising economic growth across the UK. On paper, this is by no means a radical agenda by the Conservatives’ usual standards, and is very in line with the traditional golden thread that perfuses the various factions of the Party. This week’s budget was an example of this, offering immigration reform for the social conservatives, deregulation of medicines market access for the libertarians, sound money for the One Nation Tories, and increased defence spending for the cherry on top. But what sets Rishi apart from his predecessors? Let’s take a couple of examples in childcare upheaval and disability benefits.
What this week’s announcements in these areas represent is a sizable departure from post Thatcher policy, one where the Conservatives become champions of childcare support and increased disability benefits - areas where Labour have been historically strong. In the budget this week, the Chancellor announced: 30 hours a week of funded childcare for working UK parents - totalling £4 billion, and a new Universal Support voluntary employment scheme for disabled people. This will match individuals with existing job vacancies and provide funding for necessary training and workplace support, aiming to help up to 50,000 people a year with up to £4,000 spent per person. Yes, what you are seeing there are some big Challenger 2 tanks plonked on Labour’s shrinking lawn.
Could we be seeing a brand new doctrine emerge that could be filed under ‘Sunakism’? Is this a renewed contract with the traditional Tory home crowd - the middle class? One that says: ‘We will support the two polars of society - the UK’s most vulnerable such as children and the disabled, and the wealth creators and asset owners at the top. This will create the economic growth that will permeate to you in the middle classes’. Many of Sunak’s predecessors, with perhaps the exception of Boris Johnson, would often shy away from the issue of childcare and most certainly gave little by way of disability benefits.
But there are those who say the Government is not going far enough to push for economic growth. If Sunak wanted to placate anxiety among middle-earners that this budget will bring little for them and in real terms represents an increase in the tax burden, he could have done well to visit those safe Tory shores of home ownership. Despite a slew of announcements over the last week, there is very little to satiate the thirst of those on his backbenches calling for planning reform in order to achieve growth and get the under 40s on to the property ladder. It seems then that homebuilding could well remain an issue swept under the carpet by the leaders of both parties.
But here comes the reality check. Opinion polls, although having tightened substantially since Sunak took over from Liz Truss, continue to show the Conservatives 15-20 points behind Labour. On one side of the coin, many in Number 10 will see the gargantuan effort over the last five months as a feat to be proud of, with 15-20 points being a surmountable hill to climb over the next two years.
There is however the other side of the coin. There is stock in the argument that, after arguably the best two weeks for a UK Prime Minister in some time, is it really a success to still be trailing the opposition by 15 to 20 points? Sunak’s proponents will point to a trend, and that is one way - upwards. The PM has seen his personal favourables increase substantially among voters in both the red and the blue wall. But still, the Tories cannot break into Labour’s 15-20 point polling lead.
Does this point to a nation that has already made-up its mind on the Conservatives? Have scandals and internal politics ruined the brand that Boris Johnson built and made their electoral hopes completely irredeemable for the current PM? As CalComms has been saying for months - the local elections will provide a much needed testing bed of where the Parties stand among the electorate. It is more make-or-break than many in the commentariat could be letting on. If Keir Starmer’s Labour does not make the in-roads needed to splash the front pages with photos of jolly candidates wearing red rosettes, where does this leave him just under two years out from Labour’s most crucial election since 2010. If voters tell Labour that they still do not know Keir Starmer or his policies, could this turn into a polling spiral for the recent favourite to be the next PM, and result in a pre-election leadership contest?