The event that will decide next election has already happened

Jonathan Freedland

Here’s a parlour game for the political geek in your life. When did Tony Blair win the 1997 general election? Don’t accept the reflex answer – 1 May of that year – because the one you’re looking for is 16 September 1992, Black Wednesday, when interest rates were briefly set to 15% and the Conservatives trashed their reputation for economic competence.
Now ask when Gordon Brown lost the 2010 election. The correct answer could be 17 September 2007, with the run on Northern Rock that presaged the financial crash of 2008; or perhaps 6 October 2007, when Brown ducked an early election, allowing his critics to cast the onetime iron chancellor as a bottler. Thatcher’s victory in 1979? It didn’t come on election day in May, but more probably in January, when the binmen and gravediggers went on strike, thereby providing some of the iconic motifs of the winter of discontent, just as James Callaghan was on the front page of the Sun reported (inaccurately) to be asking: “Crisis? What crisis?”
You see, hours of fun for all the family – and not wholly pointless either. Because it was Callaghan who in 1979 mused to an aide: “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.” In those moments, all the noise and toil of an election campaign is so much displacement activity: the public have already made their decision, months or even years earlier.
Of course, we don’t know whether Keir Starmer will win, still less whether we are witnessing the kind of epochal sea-change that Callaghan rightly detected nearly 45 years ago. But if Rishi Sunak’s destiny is to lose the coming contest, when might we say his fate was sealed?
The temptation will be strong – especially for many a Guardian reader – to say that Conservative defeat was guaranteed when the public finally recoiled in revulsion from this government. They might even point to Thursday of this very week, and the striking sight of a BBC Question Time audience, carefully weighted to include more Tory voters than supporters of any other party, in which not a single hand was raised in support of Sunak’s Rwanda policy. Not one. Perhaps some of those Conservatives were persuaded by the court of appeal’s declaration earlier that day that the policy was unlawful or maybe they just thought it repellent to transport people seeking asylum, many fleeing trauma and persecution, to a country that the court had decided was not safe.
Others will wonder if Sunak’s appointment in Samarra was made long before he ever reached Downing Street, thanks to the previous occupant but one. In this view, it was fury at Partygate that irreparably broke the bond of trust between government and people, and which Sunak could not shake. Once voters could see that a Conservative prime minister who had set the rules – ones that required heartbreaking sacrifice – also broke them, and extravagantly so, and then repeatedly lied about it, there was no way back.
Or there might have been, had Sunak been able to convince the electorate that these were the sins of Johnson alone. That would always have been tricky, given that the current prime minister had himself received a fixed-penalty notice for Covid lawbreaking. It would have required a wholesale repudiation of Johnson and all he had done. So perhaps the PM’s political demise was foretold on 19 June this year, the day Sunak failed even to vote on the Commons privileges committee report into Johnson’s deceptions of parliament – the day Sunak could not bring himself to make the break from a man whose behaviour had disgusted the nation.
As a result, the PM remains haunted by it. On Thursday, the committee hit out at those formerly impassioned defenders of parliamentary sovereignty who, in their devotion to Johnson, had rubbished the panel – created by parliament – as a kangaroo court or witch-hunt. Today one of those named, Zac Goldsmith, resigned his ministerial post, in a scathing exit letter, creating yet more awful headlines for the government.
If the Tories lose, all these events will have played their part – along with Brexit, of course, for which Sunak was such an early enthusiast and which now even Nigel Farage admits is a failure. And yet, the answer to the quiz question of the future may be more prosaic.
It may well be 22 June 2023, when the Bank of England raised interest rates to 5%, their highest level for 15 years. For this is where elections are won and lost: in voters’ wallets. “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” asked Ronald Reagan to devastating effect in 1980. Soon Labour will ask the same question, suitably tweaked, and the answer will be loud and furious.
Every month, people are coming off fixed-rate mortgages only to be charged with vastly increased payments that, for many, are all but unmanageable. It is no use ministers blaming the Bank of England, which sets interest rates and is tasked with managing inflation: Sunak’s own five-point plan promises to halve inflation by the end of the year. For voters, this is on him. And by “voters”, I mean specifically those who for generations have been the core of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Last week, an Ipsos poll found that 87% of homeowners with a mortgage were dissatisfied with the government. There is no blue wall without those people. There are no blue foundations without those people.
When Sunak became prime minister last autumn, even non-Conservatives greeted his arrival with a measure of relief. Unlike Liz Truss, at least he had one foot planted on planet Earth and looked as though he knew how to read a balance sheet. That would be his USP: the adult in the room.
But with inflation still so stubbornly high and mortgage rates through the (ever more expensive) roof, Sunak is destroying his own brand. He was meant to be Mr Competence; instead, the interest rate the government has to pay on its own borrowing is now higher than it was in the crazy, Kwasi days of Kwarteng and Truss. And so he is tarred with their brush, making the Conservatives – Sunak included – once again the party of economic mayhem. No predictions, but the event that will decide the outcome of the next general election? It’s already happened.
The Guardian