The Battle for Number 10: What to expect ahead of the General Election

Peter Cardwell, Senior Counsel

Standing in the pouring rain outside the dark grey bricks of Number Ten Downing Street, Rishi Sunak announced a long-awaited general election. A protestor stood outside the cast iron gates, playing Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream – Blair’s 1997 landslide victory tune. Rain pelted down onto the Prime Minister’s expensive suit, cameras clicked, and journalists huddled in front of the dripping podium.

It’s not quite the image the Conservatives would have imagined accompanying the optimistic call of a summer election. And from that moment onwards Things Did Not Really Get Better.  At all.

The next morning saw the image of a sodden Rishi Sunak plastered across every front page, with headlines such as “Drown and Out” and “Things Can Only Get Wetter” from newspapers across the political spectrum, the pathetic fallacy of the day before a gift to headline writers. Within 24 hours, Sunak had already asked the people of Wales if they were excited for the Euros (Wales didn’t qualify), delivered a speech where the Titanic was built and, inevitably, whether it was a metaphor for the state of the Conservative party.  (Coming from Northern Ireland as I do, it is constitutionally mandated that I write, at this point, that Titanic was fine when she left Belfast).  Sunak also got caught out answering questions from planted Conservative councillors at a Q&A in a warehouse in Derby, who were not actually biscuit factory workers asking, er, crunchy questions of the Prime Minister.

In the meantime, Keir Starmer plasters campaign emails and placards with a single, 6 letter word: change. Sir Keir is positioning himself as just that - something new, something different, something better. After a year of comfortably winning unexpected by-elections in seats never before held by Labour, a hugely successful set of local elections and a growing lead in opinion polls, the Labour Party really are in prime position. However, Labour frontbenchers are keen to exercise expectation management, reiterating that the fight is far from won and pointing to the 12.7% swing needed to obtain a comfortable majority.

Often criticised for riding on the back of Conservative failures rather than sitting on his hefty 20 point poll-lead through initiatives of his own, Starmer will face added pressure over the next few weeks to steer away from the “14 years of Tory chaos” line and pivot the public’s attention towards Labour’s plan – and exactly how said plan will be funded.  The message is change leading to stability, but that stability is still untested and, largely, unexamined in terms of policy.

Sunak is also positioning himself as the candidate for stability (in contrast to his party Conference speech last year where after 13 years of Conservatives in government he said he wanted to be the change candidate).  But by saying he's all about stability, he is in danger of distancing himself from his party. He has not said that the past 14 years of Tory governments have been fantastic, nor is he even saying that the Conservative record is one which he will stand over, not least in references to his immediate predecessor, Liz Truss. Rather, he is positioning himself as a lone candidate, citing his work as Chancellor during the Covid pandemic, particularly furlough, and his own measures put in place to reduce inflation.  Now at 2.3%, the rate of inflation down to manageable levels, his calculation is that the economy is largely in the right place for an election.

Conservatives such as Iain Duncan Smith have defended this approach, pointing out that Blair did exactly the same thing in 1997. This is not untrue, but lacks a key detail in that Blair was fighting from a place of opposition. He did not have the opportunity to cite achievements his party had made over the past decade, for Labour had not been in power. For Rishi Sunak, it should be easy to draw on examples of political success over the past 14 years, but with living standards at record lows, the cost of living sky high and a general feeling that Britain is not working -- the 'Broken Britain' narrative, which has strongly taken hold --  this is a difficult task.

Thus far, the campaign has been light on policy. The most significant announcements from each party both have an impact on the same late-teen age group, but could not be more different in their messaging. In an attempt to appeal to the rightward leaning, perhaps older electorate, Rishi Sunak has announced he would bring back National Service for 18 year olds if he is re-elected. Starmer, in contrast, says he would give 16 and 17 year olds the vote.

Six weeks is a very long time in politics. There will be mistakes, there will be inertia and there will be foul play. Some experts say that what happens on the campaign is irrelevant to the outcome of the election and the outcome is already decided, but with a large proportion of the electorate still undecided -- although pollsters disagree on what this number is, indeed how to calculate it -- there is still work to be done to convince many.

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