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Sketch: Rishi Sunak promises change by not changing a thing

“Stick with this plan” or it's “back to square one with Keir Starmer”, Sunak said | Alamy

Sketch: Rishi Sunak promises change by not changing a thing

Rishi Sunak has been having a bit of a tough time of late. And so he accepted an invitation from his friends at GB News to go on and talk to a “people’s forum” about why he’s so great.

The relaxed prime minister begins with a short speech to set out his stall. No, he hadn’t quite managed to fulfil all of the pledges he’d made when he took the top job, he admitted. “There’s more to do – and that’s what the election this year is about.”

And in direct contrast to what Labour was offering – that nebulous “change” we’ve all heard so much about – he said it was important to “stick with this plan”. It’s either that or “back to square one with Keir Starmer”. Is Square One the address of ‘chaos with Ed Miliband’? Many look back on those as the halcyon days of British politics and would actually quite like to revisit it.

Still, the PM pressed on. “I know I can deliver,” he says. Just give him a chance, just give his party a chance at governing. For the fifth time. For a 15th year…

Sunak shrugs nonchalantly. What can he, the literal prime minister, possibly do?

Now it was the turn of the people of the forum. David from Darlington – a constituent of Sunak – isn’t so sure about the pitch. Have the Tories delivered “anything of substance”?

Sunak looks to Teesside for inspiration, where they’ve delivered a Tory mayor, he says. They’ve also created a freeport, an “advantage of Brexit”. We’ll just gloss over the two investigations into corruption allegations at that freeport, shall we?

But the prime minister had saved the best until last. His absolute pride and joy. “I put the Treasury campus in Darlington – just think about that for a second, Darlington!” Some would have called it madness, to put a government office in the north. Some laughed at him for suggesting such a silly idea. But Sunak stuff to his guns and lo and behold, Darlington is now a centre of fiscal power. Wild! Bold! Innovative! Sunak really gets it.

All this work to level up the area, he continues, is to ensure “you don’t have to move away from your home.” “I was speaking to young people today,” he continues, who presumably can’t move away from home simply because they can’t afford to move out of their parents’ place.

That’s an issue that comes up later, too, when he tells a 19-year-old audience member that he wants him to “experience what I have experienced… getting the keys to your first home.” It’s a “magical, wonderful thing,” he says.

Photo credit: Alamy

“I don’t have an overnight fix,” or indeed any fix at all. He pledges to build more homes (which won’t help for those who can’t afford to buy them), points to a cut to stamp duty (which also won’t help those who don’t even have a deposit), and then reverts to blaming Labour.

“I’d love it to be easier,” he says. “There was an opportunity for Keir Starmer to do the right thing and make it easier for you and your generation to have those 100,00 homes – and he said no, so…” Sunak shrugs nonchalantly. What can he, the literal prime minister, possibly do? “We’re going to keep going though, because I want you to feel what I feel.”

Unless, of course, you are fleeing from another country. Sunak doesn’t want to give you anything if you arrive at these shores with nothing. That’s because, he says, “illegal migration is profoundly unfair”. How so?

“Our country is based on a sense of fairness – we are a people who wait our turn,” he says. As though those pesky asylum seekers have just skipped the orderly queue than runs through the Channel Tunnel. “We put in our fair share, we play by the rules,” he continues without a hint of irony, given not only members of his party but he himself literally was fined for objectively not playing by the rules.

As for the Rwanda policy and the bill that will pronounce the country is safe despite a Supreme Court ruling that it is not, in fact, safe… well, “we need a deterrent, that’s what Rwanda is all about.” But doubt worry, it’s definitely still safe. Absolutely nothing wrong with being sent to Rwanda which is why the country is a deterrent.

The PM insists that “all Conservative MPs do have a unity of purpose”. To turf him out?

Moving on, he’s asked about funding for culture and the arts. Sunak says he’s a big fan of it but pledges nothing. He also admits to being in a play as a kid – though he says he wasn’t very good. And now he’s trying to play the role of a real, down to Earth man… also something he’s not very good at.

Members of the people’s forum aren’t convinced by the PM’s performance.

“We want the same things for our country,” the prime minister pleads. “A vote for anyone who is not a Conservative candidate is simply a vote to put Keir Starmer into Number 10.” (That sound you hear is the Lib Dems and SNP going nuts, by the way.)

Sunak continues: “Do you want any of that? No, I don’t think you do. I’m gonna keep delivering for you. You and I want the same things and that’s how we’re gonna get them because I’m gonna win the next election.” Delusion or self-confidence? You decide.

A follow-up question is about divisions in the Conservative Party, to which the PM insists that “all Conservative MPs do have a unity of purpose”. To turf him out? No, “we want a Conservative government returned at the next election.” Which is true. It’s just they differ on how exactly that might happen and even what the party would deliver if it’s in government again.

That’s supposed to be the end of questions from the room, as host Christopher Hope moves towards the PM, brandishing a big box full of questions from viewers at home. But Sunak, aware he’s only got a few minutes left, is determined to avoid that.

“I’m genuinely surprised we’ve not had any questions about the economy, the cost of living. I’m genuinely puzzled by that… I can’t imagine all of you are really happy about the tax you’re paying and you don’t want to complain!” He grins wildly at the audience, making weird eye contact, daring one of them to ask a question about that.

John from Glasgow is willing. He starts by saying he’s unhappy about the taxes he pays in Scotland but then finished by wondering how the Tories can make themselves more attractive north of the border. No doubt Douglas Ross is leaning forward in his chair at home for the answer. 

Sunak insists he “really wanted to deliver” tax cuts and is “just like Margaret Thatcher”. Ah yes, good old Maggie Thatcher – referring to her legacy is definitely a way to get Scotland on side.

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