'General election year will be one long silly season'

As Sunak's fate lies in the hands of the voters, currying favour and generating positive headlines buries any notion of being responsible, writes Bernard Ponsonby.

2024: ‘General election year will be one long silly season’, writes Bernard Ponsonby Downing Street

There’s nothing like the prospect of a general election to witness a knee jerk of populism among the political classes.

As their fate lies in the hands of the voters, currying favour and generating positive headlines buries any notion of being responsible.

That much used and frequently abused term “the national interest”, is buried in a headlong rush to venerate the god of electoral self-interest.

The brilliant ITV drama, Mr Bates v The Post Office, detailed the destruction of lives, all regarded with disdain in the protection of corporate interests.

Folk were jailed, bankrupted, persecuted and driven to suicide in what is almost certainly the biggest mass miscarriage of justice in British criminal history.

Some have been fighting for more than 20 years to clear their names. The laissez faire attitude of government has only compounded the injustice.

But guess what?

Ministers are now looking at ways to expedite the righting of these wrongs.

That it has taken an ITV drama, aired at the beginning of an election year, to exit ministerial fingers from ministerial posteriors, really does take the breath away. Have they been deaf all of these years?

Still on the trail of positive headlines, the Prime Minister used his interview with the BBC on Sunday to give the clearest of signals that further tax increases are not too far off.

This is on top of the reduction in national insurance contributions announced by the Chancellor last November.

Pushing ahead with tax cuts when the national debt is at eye watering levels would appear to go against everything the same Prime Minister said just a year ago.

There is no game changer in the fiscal position that would justify what Rishi Sunak now appears to propose, except of course it is an election year.

Short-term headroom in the public finances is no platform on which to make long term tax cuts.

Since he is committed to reducing the debt mountain at the same time, the tax cuts will be a green light for a new round of austerity of which the welfare budget will probably take the biggest hit.

It does look like all announcements this year have to pass the populist test otherwise they will be discarded as not boosting Tory election prospects.

If the polls are to be believed one might ask, why is he bothering? It appears his party has an electoral death wish.

On Sunday, the Wellingborough Conservatives met to select a by election candidate to fly the flag following the fall from grace of the disgraced former MP, Peter Bone.

He had been garrotted by an independent expert panel probing misconduct allegations. They concluded that he “committed many varied acts of bullying and one act of sexual misconduct” against a male member of his staff. He denies all of the allegations made against him.

Now the local Tories, in what appeared to be a two fingers job to the national party, selected Mr Bone’s bidie-in to fight the by election.

Helen Harrison may be a good candidate with many fine qualities but here selection, given the circumstances, looks like a dance with almost certain defeat at the polls.

To add to Sunak’s woes, he faces another by election test in Kingswood.

Former minster Chris Skidmore has resigned the Tory whip and will force a by election in protest at the granting of oil and gas licenses in a move that he believes undermines climate targets. 

Having inherited the crown because Liz Truss proved to be so monumentally incompetent (she still defeated Sunak for the Tory leadership), his premiership looks like an exercise in clinging to power for the sake of it. 

The voters appear to have had enough and the Tories’ loss of credibility so profound that it appears that Sunak can say or do nothing to turn the tide. Populism is the last throw of the dice as he staggers from one crisis to another. 

There is a sense in which the prolonged silly season matters. With every announcement, Labour has to decide if they carry on with these policies in government.

Since the Labour strategy appears to be to say nothing on just about everything, there is a chance that the Tory agenda of the coming year could outlast any defeat they suffer in a general election.

Labour’s apparent unwillingness to take a stand on key issues does of course allow the SNP to paint themselves as the real social democratic alternative to the Tories.

The big issue with the general election north of the border is whether the nationalists can keep it on their agenda or whether the prospect of the Tories going down to a potential landslide defeat overwhelms the narrative. =

And having been in power for 17 years, there is also solid evidence to suggest that voters here are wearying of the SNP in government.

Perhaps Sir Keir Starmer after all, can rely on voter fatigue with both the Tories and the SNP having been in office for a combined total of 31 years.

Maybe people will vote for “change” even although it is pretty difficult to discern at this time, what ‘change’ will look like under Labour.

But before we get to the election, the culture of the silly season is about to dominate a whole and potentially significant year in UK politics.

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