Has Rishi Sunak made the 'worst start' ever to a general election campaign?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the National Service policy after a difficult start to the campaign

When he envisaged announcing a general election, Rishi Sunak probably imagined doing it in better circumstances.

He did so in the pouring rain, with Labour’s 1997 anthem “Things Can Only Get Better” blaring out from protesters, and to a response of outright fury from many of his own MPs.

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Having already informed the King before meeting with his Cabinet on Wednesday evening, some ministers watched on with their heads in their hands, aghast at a decision they had little say in.

Tory MPs wanted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to stop digging.Tory MPs wanted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to stop digging.
Tory MPs wanted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to stop digging.

So cross were some Tory MPs that more time wasn’t being given to turn things around, or even pass legislation they’d been working on, that some sent in letters of no confidence. Others were talked out of it, instead choosing to announce they were standing down instead.

This was followed by Mr Sunak with a visit to Belfast where he spoke in the Titanic Quarter, then a planped trip where he was photographed with an exit sign next to his head. Former Blair advisor Ayesha Hazarika labelled it the “worse start” to a campaign she’d ever seen and privately many Tories agree.

Heading home for a day off the campaign on Saturday in what aides insist was not a reset, the Prime Minister knew he needed something to change the narrative. What the Conservative party came up with was National Service.

Costing £2.5 billion, the move would see 18-year-olds join the military for 12 months or spend one weekend a month for a year volunteering for civil agencies like the police, fire service and the NHS.

Opposition parties have reacted with fury, condemning it a waste of money. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar branded the policy a “gimmick”, arguing it could be better spent on the NHS. The SNP argued it would do little to fix the crisis in the armed forces.

Regardless of the merits of these arguments, the announcement itself has done exactly what Downing Street needed. The discourse has changed.

Instead of talking about Mr Sunak looking weak, the Rwanda flights not happening or the Tory exodus, the focus is now on policy and the merits of it. MPs and journalists are discussing what young people need, the state of Britain’s finances and the practicalities of delivery.

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This saw home secretary James Cleverly squirming on the broadcast round, insisting it would be enforced, but also claiming there would be no criminal sanctions for not complying.

Also being interviewed, Mr Sarwar and SNP deputy Keith Brown were asked about their own parties, but also extensively about the Tory proposals. After a few a days of messing up the narrative, Mr Sunak has regained the initiative.

Then there is the value of the policy as a voter winner. One Deltapoll shows the idea of a new national service is somewhat supported and has strong backing from those over 66. This isn’t going to steal Labour voters over, but it could help shore up existing Tory support. It could also bring back Reform voters, who represent an existential threat to the Conservatives.

Nigel Farage has already ridiculed the idea, saying it’s about winning backers of his party. And it is. But it might just be more than that.



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