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Rishi Sunak and the Mickey Mouse Manifesto: A Work of Bleak Fiction for Another Age

The Conservative manifesto might make a line in an exam paper in 30 years. But voters desperate for change are unlikely to take notice

PM Rishi Sunak, right, visits the Great Oldbury Primary Academy during a Conservative general election campaign event in Stonehouse last Friday. Photo: Phil Noble, Pool via AP / Alamy

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On a drizzly Tuesday morning in Northamptonshire, the Conservative Party launched a work of fiction for which even the sneak previews felt hopelessly passe. Byline Times weren’t present, as we weren’t invited. But we knew the shape of what was coming, through puff pieces and leaked press releases.

Contained in the document is National Service, for 18-year-olds who’ve had their futures blunted. There are more welfare cuts for the left behind. The latter will pay for a tax cut on landlords, as the – let’s face it, outgoing – PM pledges to revive the “party of Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson”. Unfortunately for him, voters seem to want a party of Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan, by a twenty point margin.

A 2p cut in National Insurance alongside a pledge to abolish it will only cause fear among those still desperately trying to get a doctor’s appointment, or those left stranded on growing surgery waiting lists. It is a pledge to ensure school roofs remain replete with cracks, for the rivers to remain flooded with filth. 

Even if his pledges were desirable, the crux of Sunak’s problem is credibility. After 14 years of Conservative rule, the public have no faith any of it will be enacted. A promise to solve the social care crisis is simply the reheated commitment of Boris Johnson, a man who also failed to fix the mess. 

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One of the few progressive pledges is the promise to end no-fault evictions for renters. But again, it’s one that successive Conservative Governments have made and failed to deliver on. The drive to “reform” our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is intended as red meat for the foot soldiers, but it’s a stale offering past its use-by date.

Nor are voters likely to be moved by Rishi Sunak’s claim that Starmer is a “socialist”. He makes it sound incredibly tempting. 

The Telegraph‘s predictably joyous front page today

Sunak goes big on his youth-baiting mission to scrap Mickey Mouse degrees, in a Mickey Mouse manifesto aimed at a slither of the electorate: GB News viewers, 120,000 Conservative members, and those who somehow haven’t noticed the withering of Britain’s social fabric. 

But in focusing on policies that resonate primarily with Reform Party switchers and the hard right, the Conservatives have effectively given up on winning back Labour voters. This is not a strategy for victory; it’s a strategy for maintaining the status quo.

Indeed, much of the pledges seem to admit as much, comprising commitments not to do XYZ – not to raise income tax, national insurance, or VAT, and pledging not to introduce new taxes on pensions. 

That approach may have worked in the past, but it misses the mark now. The 2p cut in National Insurance failed to move the polls back in January, and there’s no reason to believe another one will today.

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We are in a 1945 moment. People seek a new settlement with the state — high taxes actually leading to better outcomes. A welfare state that works, mended schools, and a reliable health service.

During his interview with the BBC on Monday night, Sunak acknowledged euphemistically that his plans would involve “prioritisation” within Government departments. That means more cuts are inevitable. But he is failing to level with voters on where those cuts will occur. The same, it must be said, goes for Keir Starmer and the IFS’ analysis that Labour plans may also involve £18bn in spending cuts, if the party retains its commitment to get debt down at the end of the next parliament. 

A handful of still uber-loyal newspapers will give the manifesto the works: glowing front pages that look like blusher on a cadaver. Those too will gather dust before they hit the shelves. 

Because Sunak’s campaign has become moot. And this week’s tome will prove interesting reading for historians on holiday in 40 years, or as a source of Whitehall pub quiz questions in another era. Little more can be said for it.

Byline Times is relaunching our VoteWatch project to monitor disinformation, dodgy campaigning, and dark money during the 2024 General Election. Get in touch if you have a tip off or any insights:

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