Mel Stride’s media prominence reveals a Conservative campaign in dire straits

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Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are spending most of today preparing for their final debate as “Gamble-gate”, the campaign’s defining scandal, rumbles on very much in the foreground. As such, with both leaders readying to tussle over alleged election bets, this Politics@Lunch plans to step back, take stock and assess the state of the race.

Today then, I want to explain one of the race’s most prominent unexplained phenomena: the media conspicuity of Mel Stride, the Conservative work and pensions secretary.

This election, I don’t think there is a phrase I have read more — and learnt to rue more — than “Mel Stride is on the broadcast round tomorrow”. In fact, according to Sky News, Stride has represented the government on the morning media round a staggering nine times this election. (That, presumably, doesn’t include any afternoon or evening appearances — or further sit-down interviews/pool clips.)

Over the course of the campaign, therefore, Stride has dutifully trotted out lines on Gamble-gate (this morning), the PM’s D-Day debacle, the rise of Nigel Farage, Labour’s prospective “super-majority” and everything in between. No Tory, in short, is so on-script as Stride — Sunak’s man on the media.

Given the nature of Sunak’s gaffe-stricken campaign, of course, Stride has logically emerged as the PM’s arch-defender. At the peak of “Party-gate” in 2022, then-Cabinet Office minister Sir Michael Ellis was tasked with defending Boris Johnson almost weekly at the commons despatch box. This campaign, Stride takes to the broadcast studio with the same apparent enthusiasm and autosadistic loyalty. It is a portentous comparison.

What then, is informing Stride’s unshakable salience this election? Well, the conclusion adopted by many is that his greyish nature, in the mould of Ellis, means he is well-placed to kill a spiralling story. But the real reasoning behind Stride’s campaign conspicuity is rather more manifold — and revealing.

In fact, in a telling signal of how prominent Stride has become in recent weeks, we now have an official line. And who better to deliver it than the man himself? In a meta twist this morning, Stride was probed on his media prominence by Sky News. Below was his response in full:

“Well, I think there’s probably a good reason why I’m sent, which is that this election is about tax and also how you’re going to fund tax cuts, which is predominantly, in our case, through controlling the welfare budget.

“So I’m the secretary of state for work and pensions, and that includes the welfare budget, which funds about two thirds of the tax cuts that we’re bringing in, so I’m often speaking about that.”

The write-up of Stride’s response prompted this great line on Sky News’ “Politics Hub” blog feed: “As much as we at Sky News enjoy hearing from Mr Stride, there are 22 cabinet ministers — and overall, there are 125 people holding a government job”. The subtext is dripping with deprecating snarkiness: Mel, it’s getting a little boring.

As such, Stride’s insistence that his election pre-eminence is borne of his policy work is an incomplete and, frankly, misleading explanation. His emphasis on “tax cuts”, for instance, begs the question of chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s whereabouts — given fiscal policy impinges directly on his status as Treasury chief.

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As it happens, Hunt is currently battling for his political life in the marginal constituency Godalming and Ash — where he is under fierce challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Hunt is running a hyper-local campaign in the seat, evidenced by his Godalming-centric social media output; Hunt, simply, doesn’t have time to be defending Sunak over his various gaffes on the national media. Above all, he is concerned with ensuring he is returned as a Conservative MP on 4th July and — perhaps more potently — with avoiding a Portillo-esque routing.

This then, is one explanation for Stride’s significant media presence this election: other cabinet ministers are tied down in their own seats in a bid to thwart the electoral tides. Relative to Hunt’s, Stride’s seat of Central Devon is safe — he won a 17,721 majority at the 2019 election. That said, amid a broader Lib Dem onslaught into the South West, the work and pensions secretary may learn to regret his national profile come election night.

But this is only part of the story: for Stride is the staunchest of staunch Sunak allies — at a time when such Conservatives are in increasingly scarce supply. In fact, had Liz Truss not appointed Hunt as chancellor in the days prior to Sunak’s accession as PM, I’d wager that Stride would today be chancellor. The former Treasury minister and select committee chair was, like Sunak, a vocal critic of Trussonomics in late 2022. But upon becoming PM, Sunak had little choice but to inherit Hunt as his finance chief — more personnel changes at the Treasury would have risked stirring financiers further.

Additionally, Stride — compared to other Sunak lackeys like transport secretary Mark Harper, health secretary Victoria Atkins and chief secretary to the Treasury Laura Trott — is also considered to be a strong performer. As work and pensions secretary, his #MinuteWithMel social media series has been unfortunately overlooked — but it evinces some comms canny.

A big problem for Sunak and his close-knit inner circle, moreover, is the issue of who they can trust to stick to the government line. This election (not to mention the preceding months) has been replete with ministers intending to make a name for themselves in the public eye — with one eye, of course, one a future leadership contest. The prime minister, as such, finds himself in a classic political bind: he is forced to choose between mainly loyal if lacklustre media performers and potentially more bracing spokespeople who could abuse a media opportunity for their own political purposes. (In this latter category, ministers like Tom Tugendhat, Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch come to mind).

Meanwhile, three cabinet ministers are standing down at this election: levelling up secretary Michael Gove, Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and Scottish secretary Alister Jack. Both Gove and Heaton-Harris have done some media this election, but their status as exit-bound doesn’t make for especially strong optics.

On top of this, it isn’t an especially easy job defending Rishi Sunak on the media — especially given the PM’s propensity to undercut and over-rule even his most loyal spokespeople. On Monday, Heaton-Harris and education secretary Gillian Keegan toured the media studios and debate spin rooms to defend the PM’s decision not to suspend those Tory candidates at the centre of “Gamble-gate”. Illegal migration minister Michael Tomlinson followed suit on Tuesday morning — only for Sunak to sensationally U-turn hours later. As I wrote yesterday: “[This] is a good way to make loyal ministers act a little less loyally in the long run; and, in an election, it’s a great way to depress an already ailing campaign.”

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Stride, then, fits all of the Conservative campaign’s asks for a media performer: loyal, not standing down, willing to face difficult questions and not a total dud. In fact, re-reading over this list, it’s fair to say that Stride fits the bill for a perfect Conservative Party chair.

This begs a question: where on Earth is the Conservative Party chair?

Well, as far as I can tell, Richard Holden hasn’t appeared on the media since he faced a barrage of questions over his selection for the safe seat of Basildon and Billericay over a fortnight ago. Earlier this month, Holden infamously foistedhimself onto Basildon and Billericay, where the constituency’s most recent MP, John Baron, won a majority of more than 20,000 in 2019. (One can only wonder what first attracted Holden to such a seat). This is all despite claiming to be “bloody loyal” to the North East, his old parliamentary patch, in February.

As I have written before, Holden’s new safe constituency should have enabled him to focus on the national campaign and media work — the logical opposite, for what it’s worth, of Jeremy Hunt’s position. But his apparent calculation has disastrously backfired. Questioners, such as Sky News’ Jon Craig (Holden’s last combatant), care only about Holden’s “chicken run” — not his planned talking points.

In this regard, Mel Stride’s media prominence is informed by the very factors that are defining Sunak’s election woes: a neutralised party chairman, MPs standing down, disloyal ministers concerned with their post-election careers, a series of unimpressive loyal ministers, ministers tied down in close-run/doomed contests, etc.

After all, only Stride is left standing. And the work and pensions secretary, committed though he is to Sunak’s cause, cannot hold back all of Labour, the Lib Dems and Reform by himself.

In October 2022, when he entered Downing Street for the first time as PM, Sunak promised to form a “cabinet of all the talents”. Today, however, the ministerial roundtable boasts a single seat occupied by Stride. In the end, the difference between “cabinet of all the talents” and “Mel Stride is on the broadcast round tomorrow” speaks to the downward trajectory the Conservative Party has ploughed in recent months — one expedited by Sunak’s political failures.

Stride has emerged, entirely by accident, as the Conservatives’ canary in the coal mine — chirping hopelessly as the party at large comes to terms with its electoral toxicity.

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