Opinion

Alex Kane: Could Sunak still walk the tightrope to election victory?

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty on stage after he delivered his keynote speech at the Conservative Party annual conference at the Manchester Central convention complex
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murty on stage after he delivered his keynote speech at the Conservative Party annual conference at the Manchester Central convention complex

Is there something in the Manchester air? For three days delegates at the Conservative conference roared their approval for Liz Truss (the greatest, if most unlikely, resurrection act since Christopher Lee’s second outing as Dracula), Suella Braverman and even Nigel Farage – all of whom were putting the boot into Rishi Sunak at every available fringe event and encounter with a microphone.

Yet on Wednesday they were roaring their approval for their leader.

Maybe they just felt a little bit sorry for him. Let’s be honest, getting your wife to introduce you to the audience is a bit like taking your sister to the school formal. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but it does suggest that he couldn’t find a colleague who was willing to be seen on the same platform at the same time.

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And even though his wife did her best, it still sounded a bit like a character reference statement read to the judge and jury before the verdict and possible sentence.

Or maybe the audience had decided that since it was likely to be his last conference speech before a general election and last conference speech as prime minister, they should suspend their doubts and dislike of him (most of them probably voted for Truss in the summer of 2022) and clap at just about anything he said.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party annual conference
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party annual conference

Something similar happened to John Major at the 1996 conference, just months before the party went down to the greatest defeat in its history.

Sunak, of course, was thinking back to the 1991 conference, the one which followed the brutal overthrow of Margaret Thatcher (and for good measure he gave her two mentions in his speech).

Her successor, John Major, was practically unknown to the grassroots, who had had no say in his election as leader, and the general expectation of the polls and pundits – and most of his MPs – was that the party was in for a massive hiding from Labour at an election due the following year.

But then Major did something extraordinary. He actually won the election in April 1992: and even though it was a slim majority of 21 he still holds the record of amassing the most physical votes in the party’s electoral history.

Former Prime Minister John Major
Former Prime Minister John Major

He was helped by Labour leader Neil Kinnock going slightly bonkers during the campaign, having decided that he couldn’t possibly lose and beginning to act as though he were prime minister. That, and falling into the sea during a photo opportunity.

Sunak is hoping the same thing will happen with Keir Starmer, which is why he took quite a few opportunities in his speech to rough him up.

I don’t think Starmer is very much like Kinnock in terms of his approach to politics and campaigning (Kinnock acted and sounded like an Alabama evangelical pastor fuelled on Red Bull); that said, Starmer has a tendency to sound disinterested and delivers a speech in exactly the same way an anonymous drive-thru voice reads back your order for Big Macs and veggie fries.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

And while we’re on the subject of fast food, Sunak served up a whopping bucket of mixed wings and ribs to suit the various appetites of his party’s own mixed wings. It was like feeding time on the schizophrenics’ ward of the Bide-a-Wee asylum for delegates trapped forever in 1979.

He had the sense to admit that not everyone would agree with his policy announcements but reckoned that feeding each wing with its meat of choice would focus their collective minds on steering the electoral Tardis towards the right time tunnel.

He could yet be proven right. The Conservative Party has survived as a big beast for so long precisely because the desire for victory eclipses and predominates everything else.

There is no democratic party which does brutality, defenestration and reinvention so well, as it lurches from centre-right to off-the-horizon right with the erratic skill of a blind, heavily intoxicated funambulist.