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London View: Sunak Running Out of Time as PR Moves Backfire

By: Sanjay Suri

News18.com

Last Updated: August 08, 2022, 16:14 IST

Eastbourne

Candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss take part in the BBC Conservative party leadership debate (File image: Reuters)

Candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss take part in the BBC Conservative party leadership debate (File image: Reuters)

An odd pattern has emerged: Sunak appears to win the debates, but Liz Truss seems to win over more and more of the party members

Rishi Sunak clearly has the stronger argument on the economy, but he is running out of time to make it in. Ballot papers arrived for party members over last week, and a great many appear to have cast their votes promptly, both by post and online. That could mean that all arguments offered through the course of the eight formal hustings remaining out of 12 could prove wasted arguments for both candidates.

That would be to the disadvantage of Rishi Sunak who clearly has the more prudent arguments on the economy. The longer he gets to make those arguments, the more people he could potentially convince with them. Arguments over the economy have dominated the debates so far – but these are not the only ones being made, or listened to.

Truss gains

Through the hustings for party members, and the public debates on television so far Truss has gained the lead over Sunak. An odd pattern has emerged: Sunak appears to win the debates, but Liz Truss seems to win over more and more of the party members. And of course, it’s the party members who count, not the show of hands through a debate.

A part of the reason for these contrary flows is that the audiences picked for the debates are different in profile from the attendance at Conservative Party hustings. To note this is to risk suggesting that those filling the debate studios are more discerning than the average Tory party voter. Any objective determination of that is not possible, but the Tory voters clearly have their leanings, and they will view any debate through the prism of those leanings.

Some factors stand out through the debates thus far. A YouGov poll among Conservative members suggests that the majority supports neither Sunak nor Truss, but Boris Johnson. And since Boris Johnson is not a contender, a significant extent of the support for him is diverting towards Truss, who remained loyal to him all through. And the support for Boris will doubtless backfire on Sunak who is seen to have brought him down.

Dubious PR

But these factors were clear at the start of the contest. Support for Sunak has dipped steadily since, and this is not necessarily down to some tempting offers of tax cuts from Liz Truss. A fair bit of this erosion away from a potential Sunak vote could come down to PR tactics from the Sunak team.

Rishi Sunak clearly has a very organised and obviously well-resourced PR team going for him. And that itself could be a problem. It’s a style of voting that is not necessarily reaching Conservative members, and possibly even distancing some from him.

That has been a pattern from the start when the Rishi PR machinery produced a slick video posted on social media the day after Boris Johnson resigned. The video had clearly not been produced overnight, Sunak had been preparing for some time. But at that time the voters were all of 358 Conservative members of parliament, who he all knew personally. He would have to convince them directly, not through a video message on Twitter.

Sunak no doubt led the field in the MPs’ round. But he fell short of the halfway mark his predecessors had crossed in a similar choice. And finally, Liz Truss’s 113 without any of the Internet video stuff was not bad to Sunak’s 137. It’s hardly the case that Sunak’s lead of support from 24 MPs was a result of slick video messaging.

The Rishi PR machine has since come up with more slick messaging on video and over the Internet. It’s just as uncertain whether this would be the best way to reach the estimated 160,000 Conservative voters, a substantial number of who are elderly people living in rural areas. Direct contact with these would logistically be possible, and more effective than the smart stuff on video.

Rishi Sunak has been engaging in a fair bit of that of late, with mainly an offering of a packaged selection of promises that would appeal to the Tory right, such as backing the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, and cutting down on welfare schemes. The package is packed with all that voters have been thought to expect. But the offering has clearly not been working for Sunak as intended.

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first published:August 08, 2022, 16:14 IST
last updated:August 08, 2022, 16:14 IST