In a revealing exchange with Laura Kuenssberg during his pre-conference Sunday morning interview, the prime minister was asked what, if anything, he admired in Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
Sunak refused to answer: “Great”, he began, “I’m not interested in talking about personalities, people can make up their own minds”.
He continued: “I’m interested in setting out my vision for the country, and people can make their own judgement. But what I would say is you’ve got to take a stand on things.
“I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on everything, but people will have a clearer idea of what I believe what I stand for, and the direction in which I want to lead the country”.
“[Politics] is not all rough and tumble”, Kuenssberg insisted as she framed her question. But this was the prime minister insisting it is.
So, presented with the opportunity to tone down the rhetoric, without a moment’s pause Sunak instead dialled it up, launching into a thinly-veiled, feisty attack on the Labour leader: “I don’t think actually saying nothing, hiding is the right type of leadership. I think that’s an abdication of leadership, quite frankly”.
He added: “I’m interested in sending out a clear set of policies, a clear direction of travel based on my values, which I think are the values shared by the British people. And that’s how we’re going to do things now. We’re going to do things differently.
“We’re going to change how we do politics, and that’s how we’re going to change our country”.
Ostensibly, Sunak’s answer here is a further indication that as we travel the road to a general election in 2024, the public discourse is getting coarser. But the response is also a manifestation of his new approach to politics and government, as he debuts a more aggressive political style this conference season.
This hardened discursive edge to Sunak’s “rebrand” comes after the prime minister watered down his government’s targets on net zero in a speech that openly attacked the way politics has been conducted in recent years. “Too often, motivated by short term thinking, politicians have taken the easy way out”, the PM said in his net zero speech last month: “Telling people the bits they want to hear, and not necessarily always the bits they need to hear”.
This was, if you took the PM at his word, him injecting long-overdue realism into the climate debate. In total, the PM’s speech on net zero — which announced that the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be moved back five years to 2035 and that the transition to heat pumps has been delayed — mentioned the word “change” (in a political/governance context) 20 times.
But “change” is not just forthcoming on net zero. Elsewhere, Sunak has insisted that “I’m slamming the brakes on the war on motorists” as he attacked “hare-brained schemes” like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and 20mph zones introduced by councils.
Announcing the new approach to the Sun, Sunak said: “Now that I’ve had this job for almost a year, you know, lots of difficult things to get to grips with the beginning — I spent the time to get under the bonnet.
“Now I am in a position where I want to set out the changes that I want to make take this country a different.”
Then there’s the matter of HS2. Scrapping the northern leg, or phase two route, to Manchester would fit neatly into Sunak’s new pitch on taking “difficult decisions”, which other politicians might view as electorally propitious to push back.
You can see the theory on paper here — Sunak wants to restyle himself as a “change politician”, seizing on voters’ discontent with the status quo and attempting to tie Labour leader Keir Starmer to the short-term, path of least resistance politics which has delivered it.
However, the immediate political attraction of being a “change” politician aside — Sunak’s pitch here is, of course, stunningly audacious. For after 13 years of Conservative government, the prime minister is attempting another reinvention which rests on, for its rhetorical force, rubbishing the initiatives of his predecessors.
Sunak will know that, in recent years, the Conservatives have repeatedly eyed electoral success in reinvention. Theresa May’s emphasis on “burning injustices” in her first speech as prime minister was viewed as signally a political change of direction from the Cameron years. Boris Johnson spent the whole of the 2019 leadership contest explaining how he would succeed on Brexit where Theresa May had failed. Then Liz Truss appeared out of the blue in 2022 with a political vision defined in opposition to decades of Conservative-shaped economic orthodoxy.
But what seems so striking about Sunak’s reinvention is that he appears to be repudiating his own approach to governance which he has focussed on since October last year and, certainly, since January.
Because, long before Rishi 2.0, Rishi 1.0 in the New Year worked to define his time in Downing Street on the clearest possible terms. The “five pledges” penned in January already gave the government an overarching collection of North Stars to frame its operation: it deliberately denied the siren calls for hyper-political bluster — only delivery, Sunak insisted, would re-earn the “trust” of the British people.
That a new operation has now been inaugurated is probably proof that No 10 does not see the pledges, curated to project Sunakian stability and competence, cutting through. The pragmatic, delivery-orientated mode of governance that the pledges spoke to has, therefore, been replaced by a hyper-political, headline-grabbing style.
It means, where Sunak once saw virtue in steadying the ship, now he works deliberately to rock the boat. “Rishi 2.0” is about the prime minister throwing caution to the wind with big mooted policies on watering down net zero policies, further curtailing the spread of HS2, ending the “war on motorists” and more surely to be announced.
But, before you arrive at the broader limitations of the approach — the foremost of which will be the fuelling of party divisions on levelling up and climate policy — headline-grabbing politics only really succeeds if it is underpinned, in the end, by real advances.
Ultimately, Sunak’s tough talk could simply be undercut by the fact that the Conservatives have been in office for thirteen years. “That’s how we’re going to do things now”, Sunak told the BBC on Sunday. The obvious question is: why the sudden change of heart? The PM will need to explain his strategical switch-up in a way that cannot merely be dismissed as hollow, opinion poll sensitive electioneering.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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