Rishi Sunak has already lost control of the narrative


Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced that a general election will take place on Thursday July 4. Over the course of the next six weeks, therefore, he and Labour leader Keir Starmer will pit their parties, themselves, and their stories, against each other.

But the 2024 general election may prove unprecedented in the relative anonymity of the political leaders. It is being fought by two especially distant political leaders, who have struggled to create, let alone communicate, an engaging personal story.

Both Sunak and Starmer are often accused of being boring. And even though personality is a central force in governing, Sunak has often criticised “personality politics” as petty. He rarely talks about himself unless he absolutely has to.

For all Sunak’s talk of an election being a choice between who you can and can’t trust, it is telling that Sunak and Starmer’s statements at the calling of the election referred so little to themselves personally.

A message, drowned out

The importance of narrative, and the danger of not having one, was clear even as Sunak announced the date of the election. Standing in the pouring rain, struggling to be heard over the noise of a nearby protester playing Things Can Only Get Better – a song most readily associated with Tony Blair’s 1997 election win – Sunak was visibly rattled. The narrative was already a negative one – wet costume, bad setting and an unwelcome soundtrack.

Sunak could have improvised, and it’s telling that he didn’t. He could have doubled down on the song’s message and repurposed it to his own ends. He could have acknowledged it and used it to criticise his opposition. This moment may stand as a lasting metaphor for Sunak’s failure to grasp the narrative and the initiative.


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Sunak must now choose an election narrative. His strategy may be to fight this election with self-awareness, using an “underdog” story (considering his party’s weak position in the polls). It may be to double down on the message that “the plan is working”. Either way, he urgently needs to counter the narrative of decline that has flourished during his leadership.

Starmer faces the same choices. It was around this time last year that he finally started making headway in reclaiming his own personal narrative and pushing his working-class credentials to the fore.

In using terms like “Sir Softy”, and branding Starmer as a “north London virtue-signaling lawyer”, we have seen signs that Sunak wants to undermine Starmer’s working-class credentials, and turn Starmer’s own personal story against him.

However, there is arguably less pressure on Starmer to deliver a strong personal story than there is on Sunak. As psephologist John Curtice pointed out on BBC Radio 5 Live: “Starmer’s task is to hang on to the support the party has.”

Narrative control, narrative chaos

However Sunak and Starmer choose to present themselves, the timing of the election is likely to reinforce the air of resignation (figuratively and literally) for the Tories, and for Sunak himself.

Timing is part of the personal narrative, too, and a surprise announcement of an election in just a few weeks does not fit with Sunak’s aspiration to present himself as a safe pair of hands.

The Guardian’s snap verdict was that: “Sunak made no attempt to explain why he is calling it for 4 July … There was no real need for an explanation, but it would have been nice to have one.” I agree – and I think it would have also been “nice” for the Tories to have one. Sunak has missed a chance to seize the narrative by saying exactly why he has made a decision that is so unexpected to so many people.

At worst, this will actively go against Sunak’s personal story, and with it, his “brand”. As Sky News chief political correspondent Jon Craig put it: “A prime minister with a reputation for caution and an obsession with spreadsheets is actually a gambler.” This should not be treated as a throwaway comment. Sunak’s persona is one of calm, methodical, informed decision-making. This chimes well with the Tory narrative of sensible, sound planning, especially in economic matters.

Rishi Sunak making a speech in the rain
Drowned and drowned out.
Alamy/PA/Lucy North

Playing the gambler for one day is a risky strategy for a man who lives by these rules, especially when he is seeking to portray his rival as unpredictable. In his speech calling the election, Sunak said of Starmer:

He has shown time and time again that he will take the easy way out and do anything to get power. If he was happy to abandon all the promises he made to become leader leader once he got the job, how can you know that he won’t do exactly the same thing if he were to become prime minister?

The current prime minister must be careful that the same logic doesn’t end up being applied to him.



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