2024: the themeless election

Alastair Meeks
3 min readFeb 3, 2024

It’s an oddity really. Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer are both transparently intelligent men. Both have chosen a career in politics (Sir Keir Starmer after having chosen a career in the law). Yet neither one of them seems remotely able to construct an argument.

Just what message is either of them giving to the country? Rishi Sunak isn’t even sure whether he is offering change or continuity.

John McTernan has summed this up well:

“Sunak started off a year ago with “a relatively sensible strategy” of pursuing five pledges devised by Australian adviser Isaac Levido, according to McTernan, who added: “Then they panicked last summer and threw five or six different things at the wall. We had spreadsheet Rishi, anti net zero Rishi, tech bro Rishi, I’m the change Rishi, Cameroon Rishi.”

Now he’s suggesting that Britain should “stick to the plan” and that Labour would take Britain back to square one. Given that 75% of the country think that things in Britain are worse than they were in 2010, that’s a bold strategy. I expect he’ll be back to presenting himself as the change candidate soon enough.

The main thing you should be getting from this is how strategically incompetent Rishi Sunak is. You need to tell a single story then stick to it. Rishi Sunak is, as John McTernan notes, onto his fifth or sixth tack. The voters are both fed up and bewildered. They’ve given up on him.

Sir Keir Starmer is scarcely better at setting his stall out. It’s not for want of policies (it never is). Indeed, the one policy that anyone has actually heard of, green energy investment, is currently bogged down in a will-he-won’t-he psychodrama about the exact figure pledged. At least he is consistently presenting himself as a change candidate. It’s just that no one knows what that change is supposed to be.

He may in practice benefit from the hard advantage of low expectations. If, as looks increasingly likely, Labour are elected with a stonking majority but the public is unenthused, he has scope to surprise on the upside. Any positive change will be treated as welcome news.

Still, this lack of message from our political leaders is contributing to the country’s palpable sense of decay and exhaustion. The public needs some hope. Right now, there’s precious little of it around. The public mood is most easily summed up by lyrics from Paul Simon’s “American Tune”:

“I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees

But it’s alright, it’s alright
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re travelling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what has gone wrong”

For the sour truth is that Britain has stagnated since 2008 and looks set to stagnate for at least another year. The Bank of England is predicting anaemic growth at best for as far as the eye can see. Sir Keir Starmer told business leaders this week:

“It’s not just the permanent cycle of crisis, there is something much more fundamentally broken in the way this country creates wealth.”

Thanks for that, Sir Keir. Now, where’s the positive vision?

The public are quite capable of coming up with their own analyses of how the country is going to the dogs. What they need from politicians is an explanation of how they will try to make things better. And that is singularly lacking right now. If Sir Keir Starmer is going to succeed as Prime Minister and not just get elected, sooner or later he is going to need to make us believe in a place called Hope. He’s had nearly four years to try. Perhaps he doesn’t have it in him.