Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

New ‘dividing line’ on security suggests Rishi Sunak is in damage limitation mode

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Another day, another set of competing set-piece events from the prime minister and his wannabe successor, Keir Starmer. That sound you hear, that’s the starting gun on 2024’s long election campaign being well and truly fired.

Delivering a “major” speech on national security this morning (according to Downing Street’s billing), Rishi Sunak warned of a “dangerous” five years ahead and that, already, the world is “closer to a dangerous nuclear escalation than at any point since the Cuban missile crisis”.

He argued that Britain is at a “crossroads” and “almost every aspect of our lives is going to change”. Naturally, he went on to blast Keir Starmer for having “no plans” and “no principles either”.

In positioning the Conservatives as the natural party of defence in a less safe world, Sunak intends to draw another totemic “dividing line” with Labour. It is an unsubtle signal that security will now become a dominant and recurring theme of the Conservatives’ re-election bid — after months of relentless messaging on the economy. Given how little success has flowed from Sunak’s consecutive NI cuts, are we now seeing the outline of *another* relaunch?

The PM’s address, of course, comes after he announced last month that a future Conservative government will spend 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence by 2030. Responding to the plan at the time, Labour adopted a less trenchant view — arguing it would only do the same when the economic conditions allow.

This previous announcement on defence spending, especially in light of Sunak’s comments today, can reasonably be viewed as a classic pre-election “trap”: the commitment to a hefty spending pledge was meant to pile pressure on Labour to match the position and, in turn, loosen its commitment to fiscal discipline. Sensing danger, Starmer has so far refused to bite.

And so No 10 now senses an opening in the — admittedly slight — divergence in the Conservative and Labour positions on defence. Speaking on Sunday in a bid to set up Sunak’s speech, foreign secretary Lord Cameron told Sky News: “This whole issue [is] about security — because it’s not just about what’s happening in other parts of the world. Right here in the UK, you see China cyber attacks, you see Iranian and Russian physical attacks”.

He added: “We know that security is the most important thing, and Rishi’s got the policies and the team to deliver”.

Of course, while the stress on security is a relatively new development in the Conservatives’ messaging, it sits neatly within the prime minister’s “better the devil you know”/“stick with the plan” strategy. In a dangerous world, Sunak wants to reframe the Labour Party’s “change” platform as an unnecessary risk amid a backdrop of immense geopolitical turbulence. The heart of the PM’s argument is clear: don’t risk the UK’s economic recovery or national security by backing the untested Starmer.

But what may be more significant than the substance of Sunak’s speech, is that the broader pitch suggests his strategists — in the wake of the local elections — are now leaning relatively heavily into damage limitation. Suffice it to say, a security-heavy campaign is unlikely to generate a surprise groundswell of support for the Conservatives over the next few months. It may swing some lost Conservatives back to the party, or perhaps motivate apathetic Tories to turnout on election day. But it is difficult to imagine an electoral effect more seismic than this.

Sunak insisted today that he remains “confident” that the Conservatives will prevail in the general election. The strategy, I’m afraid, indicates otherwise.

Ultimately, it’s worth stressing that the PM’s core political problem is not his top-line messaging, broader strategy or lack of “dividing lines” (recent relaunches will have hardly buttressed Sunak’s pitch as the political essence of stability, in any case). Rather, the greatest drag on the PM’s fortunes is undoubtedly the Conservative brand at large.

One of Starmer’s more authoritative arguments is that recent governance — from Boris Johnson to Sunak — has been so chaotic, that the “secure” choice is actually to vote for change. In fact, “security” has long been a key undergirding tenet of Starmerism; not just in restoring certainty to governance — but with pitches on economic security, energy security, national security and, just last week, border security.

Damage limitation, then, would now appear to be shaping Rishi Sunak’s ever-evolving politics. In this way, I was interested to read in The Guardian over the weekend that the Conservatives have actually updated their election strategy to focus on limiting MP losses, at the expense of making inroads into opposition territory. According to The Guardian, CCHQ is now ploughing extra resources into as many as 200 seats deemed at risk at the next election.

This amounts to the Conservative Party backtracking on its much-reported 80:20 election strategy — which saw Sunak’s party strategists focus on defending their 80 most marginal seats and winning 20 target seats. Judging by the state of the opinion polls, of course, limiting losses would seem to be a more realistic objective.

Meanwhile, Keir Starmer is in the West Midlands today for a big in-person meeting with Labour’s many metro mayors. With discussion about the development of a “gold standard” for growing regional economies on the agenda, Starmer will be accompanied by 10 mayors — including Andy Street’s successor in the West Midlands, Richard Parker.

It’s not a pre-election get-together Sunak can much mirror, with his party having been reduced to one metro mayor — Ben Houchen in Tees Valley — after the local elections. The contrast reflects the varying states of the Labour and Conservative election campaigns: Starmer is on the up, revelling in his local elections success; while Sunak is responding to recent routings with a damage limitation exercise.

It’s going to be a long general election campaign indeed.

Lunchtime briefing

Common sense minister praises Rishi Sunak as ‘intellectual giant’

Labour hits back at ex-justice secretary who made Elphicke lobbying claims

Lunchtime soundbite

‘Rishi Sunak is an intellectual giant, absolutely’

—  At a Centre for Policy Studies event today, the so-called common sense minister, Esther McVey, responds to a question doubting the policy-making process of the government. More here.

Now try this…

Reform UK reliant on leader Richard Tice for 80% of funding since 2021
The Guardian reports.

Thangam Debbonaire: “I will never take voters for granted”
Shadow culture secretary Thangam Debbonaire speaks to The House magazine about why she is confident of seeing off the Greens in her Bristol West seat.

Will a Labour government face a mayors’ revolt?
The New Statesman’s Freddie Hayward writes that, if Keir Starmer fails to deliver growth, new fractures will emerge between Westminster and the regions. (Paywall)

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