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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: Sunak is no different from his predecessors

Where is the “integrity and accountability” the prime minister promised?

Image: The New European/Getty

“Watch for the signal, not the noise” was the wise advice of pollster Peter Kellner in the paper the other week. It is advice that most of our media will ignore, because they need noise, and opinion polls are a very good way of creating it.

This applies especially to those newspapers, the ones Liz Gerard writes about so splendidly, which are essentially extensions of the Tory Party propaganda machine. Noise is really all they have, and the more desperately they worry that power is slipping away from their friends, the louder they shout at us… that Britain is great; the economy is about to boom; Brexit is going well; things are finally turning for “Rishi,” just as once they were turning for Dave, Theresa, Boris and Liz.

But they do hate better than love, so they shout even louder when turning on the enemies of their Tory friends… currently Keir Starmer, who (irony alert) has spent his whole life trying to keep murderers, terrorists and paedophiles out of jail; or Ed Davey (ditto) who is solely responsible for the pain and suffering of Post Office sub-postmasters, which had absolutely nothing to do with successive Tory ministers, and can we kindly not mention that the husband of the current education secretary was a big cheese at Fujitsu, which made shedloads of cash from the dodgy computer system that put innocent people in jail and drove others to suicide?

Take with a pinch of salt the Lord Frost-backed poll predicting a Tory wipeout because the numbers will – as Peter Kellner said – at some point narrow. And when they do the Tory papers will use that moment to make more noise and try to shape a new narrative, that the Labour threat is being repelled, which in turn will take the anti-Labour propaganda drive into a new and even more demented phase. If that narrowing were to come in the next week or two, they would invent a “Sunak military action bounce;” if it were to follow the March 6 budget, then it would be a “tax cut bounce.”

Beware bounce talk. “Signal, not noise.” I saw a very detailed polling analysis last week, and of all the many noisy events that have shaped the current Parliament, only two have actually moved the signal: partygate, when the Johnson character flaws that made him unfit to be prime minister finally became clear to all but the absolute cultists; and the Liz Truss kamiKwasi budget. These were genuine cut-through episodes. The Tories’ ratings fell on the back of both, and the shift seems to have become fixed.

Rishi Sunak was the obvious choice to follow Johnson and Truss, because his ratings were far higher than theirs when they were forced out and, more importantly, higher than those of his party. But the presentation I saw revealed the moment the Sunak signal shifted too, and his ratings slumped towards those of the Tory brand. And that was when he refused to engage in the debate around the Privileges Committee report which confirmed that Johnson had lied to parliament about partygate.

It was, as I said here at the time, a huge opportunity for Sunak to show that he was different to the charlatan and the clown who had gone before him. He flunked it, in the most cowardly way imaginable, and that lack of courage was noticed, and seen as defining. He has tried several strategy resets, policy shifts and personnel changes since to move the dial back upwards. All have created a huge amount of noise, helped by the cheerleaders, but none has succeeded in moving the signal. 

By the time I got home, and had a quick look at social media, a gaunt-looking Johnson was featuring prominently in my feed, having written an article for the Mail about military action against the Houthis, warning that the episode showed our national security would not be safe under prime minister Starmer. And it made me smile. Because if there is one thing I took away from a couple of hours being guided through a mass of data covering this parliament, it is that every time Johnson or Truss are in the public eye, it is good for Labour.

They serve not just as reminders of their own failings, and the damage done to people’s lives and livelihoods, but of Sunak’s inability to show that he is really that different, let alone that he has delivered the “integrity, professionalism and accountability” he promised when taking office on the back of Johnson and Truss trashing all three so spectacularly.

None of the above should be taken by Labour as a sign that they can just sit tight and watch the Tories preside over their own slow death. No, no, no.

I am currently enjoying a very readable biography of Harold Wilson by shadow cabinet member Nick Thomas-Symonds, and it was interesting to see the full context of the former prime minister’s famous (in my circles anyway) quote: “This party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.”

That sentence, delivered to the Labour conference in 1962, was preceded by this one: “No socialist party can ever be satisfied with an electoral victory based on a mere swing against the government.” That is the context that matters.

Though the Tories have done a lot of heavy lifting in getting Labour close to power, it is the moral crusade part of the equation that will turn a hung parliament or a small majority into a big win, which is what they need to make real and lasting change. Get crusading, I say.

I am indebted to my friend and fellow mental health campaigner Cary Cooper for alerting me via his tweet to another historical speech, from April 1653, which also has resonance for today. The circumstances of Oliver Cromwell’s “in the name of God, go” may be different (he was addressing the whole parliament, not just the government), but heavens, do the words which preceded that dramatic finale not also still ring true today?

“It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue and defiled by your practice of every vice. Ye are a factious crew and enemies to all good government. Ye are a pack of mercenary wretches who would, like Esau, sell your country for a mess of pottage and, like Judas, betray your country for a few pieces of money.

“Is there a single virtue remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth? Ye sordid prostitutes, have ye not defiled this place and turned it into a den of thieves by your immoral principles and practices? Ye are grown odious to the whole nation.

“You were deputed here by the people to get grievances redressed so in the name of God unlock the doors and go!!”

Not wanting to risk friendships in Ireland, I won’t go overboard on Cromwell, but wow… he could make a speech.

It is not often that I enjoy any “breaking news” which has Trump in the headline. I would prefer never to have to read about him again. However, I thoroughly enjoyed reading that a judge had ordered him to pay $400,000 to the New York Times over a lawsuit he brought against the paper.

As you may be aware, the New European is seeking to recover legal costs incurred in defending itself against “Baroness” Michelle Mone’s threats over stories she knew to be true. The logic in the Trump case was very powerful, as it is, I believe, in ours. Watch this space.

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