DAN HODGES: Pulling pints won’t rescue you, Rishi – but reviving the economy just might
The contrast couldn’t have been worse. Rishi Sunak smiling cheerily as he and his family strolled along the sun-drenched pier in Santa Monica.
Five thousand miles away, on a gloomy Threadneedle Street in the City of London, Bank of England officials were announcing yet another hike in interest rates, sending the cost of borrowing on mortgages, credit cards and other loans to their highest level since 2008.
‘I understand why Rishi wants a holiday,’ one Tory Minister glumly confided, ‘but we’ve got an Election in 12 months. The cost-of-living crisis is still hammering people. Does he really need to jet halfway round the world? Couldn’t he just have a week at Butlin’s?’
Looked at in the narrowest political terms, the Prime Minister’s choice of destination was indeed tone deaf.
Though No 10 refused to confirm specifics of his travel plans for security reasons, there was immediate speculation the PM would be staying at his ‘£5 million California penthouse’ which includes ‘stunning views of the Santa Monica mountains’, allows residents to ‘wake up to the sound of waves crashing against the shore’, and contains a ‘pet spa’.
The contrast couldn’t have been worse. Rishi Sunak smiling cheerily as he and his family strolled along the sun-drenched pier in Santa Monica. Five thousand miles away, on a gloomy Threadneedle Street in the City of London, Bank of England officials were announcing yet another hike in interest rates, sending the cost of borrowing on mortgages, credit cards and other loans to their highest level since 2008
Trying to repackage Rishi Sunak at this late stage of the political cycle is a fool’s errand. One that would also entail taking the public for fools. They aren’t. The British people can smell political inauthenticity and a lack of constancy a mile off.
This was, of course, a gift for Labour, which has taken a tactical decision to highlight Sunak’s links with the Sunshine State.
In June, Sir Keir Starmer responded to Sunak’s claim at Prime Minister’s Questions that interest rates were also rising in the US, Canada and Australia by taunting: ‘I know he has a keen interest in mortgages in California.’
It also allowed the Opposition to rehash the US green card affair – which had granted him permanent residence in the States – along with his wife’s non-dom tax row.
But the criticism of his holiday is unjust. And also politically short-sighted.
For one thing, Sunak and his family deserve a break. Sympathy for politicians is inevitably in limited supply, especially during a time of economic hardship.
But he occupies one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. And as the rooftop invasion of his constituency home by Greenpeace’s eco-idiots underlined, the stresses – and dangers – that accompany the role are real and constant.
Similarly, despite the best efforts of some of the more radical elements of the Left, envy has never proved a potent weapon in British politics.
Yes, people are struggling to make ends meet. But as a result they don’t have time to study the travel plans of the political class. Their focus is on ensuring the bills get paid.
If Rishi Sunak can demonstrate he’s helping a little with that, few voters will care about a visit to Disneyland.
And if he can’t then he could be photographed holidaying in a rainswept tent on Canvey Island and it still wouldn’t save him.
There’s one final reason why Rishi Sunak and his colleagues shouldn’t worry about the terrible optics of his holiday. The British people know full well that their Prime Minister isn’t one of them.
During May’s local elections, I visited Darlington. Sunak had been to the County Durham industrial town a few days before, looking at potholes.
To the local residents, it might as well have been a visitor from Mars perusing their potholes.
Fabulously wealthy. Awkward. Otherworldly. That’s how County Durham views Rishi Sunak.
Indeed, it’s how most of Britain views Rishi Sunak. And nothing he or his spin-doctors or pollsters or image gurus do between now and the next General Election is going to significantly alter that perception.
So Rishi Sunak may as well lean into it. Because there’s one thing much worse for him than people seeing his wealth, his geekiness and his technocratic aloofness.
It’s he and his aides running around desperately trying to hide his wealth and geekiness and aloofness.
Just before he departed for California, Sunak staged a photo-op, pulling a pint of Black Dub stout. The wheeze was to show he was on the side of the beer-loving masses. But he struggled to pour a proper head
Just before he departed for California, Sunak staged a photo-op, pulling a pint of Black Dub stout. The wheeze was to show he was on the side of the beer-loving masses.
But he struggled to pour a proper head.
He then found himself heckled over alcohol duty by an irate Wimbledon publican.
Finally he was asked to name his favourite pub. ‘Well, I’m teetotal,’ he replied meekly.
There was a time when Rishi Sunak might have managed to successfully cast himself as a champion of the working man.
And we can pinpoint it very specifically – it was until that fateful day in 2007 when, while an Oxford University student, he appeared in the BBC documentary Middle Classes, and with charming innocence and honesty declared: ‘I have friends who are upper class, I have friends who are… you know… working class. Well, not working class…’
The horse has long since bolted on efforts to recast Rishi Sunak as possessing the common touch. Or rather, the £95 Palm Angel designer sliders have bolted. Along with the £180 Ember travel mug, and the Dassault Falcon 900LX private jet that took him on a 28-minute flight from Blackpool to Teesside.
The best thing Rishi Sunak can do now is not reach frantically for the Black Dub, but focus on the lessons that can be learned from two of his predecessors.
In an attempt to soften his image, Gordon Brown was once interviewed by a fashionable lads’ mag and asked if he preferred the music of the Arctic Monkeys or James Blunt.
Rather than admit he had never heard of either of them, he plumped for the indie rockers from Sheffield. And in that instant helped underline the increasing shallowness of the New Labour brand.
Boris Johnson, by contrast, never attempted to frame himself as one of the lads. Unless the lads in question happened to be hanging out with Homer around 740AD.
Johnson’s strategy didn’t involve chatting up the voters with an affectation for beer and football.
Instead, he spent most of his time quoting Latin to them. And they respected the fact he wasn’t trying to talk down to them, or attempting to politically mimic them.
Over the past couple of weeks, there have been signs that Rishi Sunak intends to pursue his own Arctic Monkeys strategy: pulling pints and announcing that he’s set to recast himself as ‘the motorist’s friend’.
Sadly, it’s doomed to end the same way as Brown’s rebranding.
There is only one – admittedly slender – hope for the Prime Minister. And that is to stick to the plan and persona he unveiled on the day he entered Downing Street.
Tackling inflation. Delivering growth. Cutting waiting lists. Slashing debt. Stopping the illegal cross-Channel boats.
These are the issues he will live or die by. And there is no point in trying to ditch Spreadsheet Rishi and replacing him with Retail Rishi.
Yes, there are things his team could do to make the Prime Minister appear a little less ethereal.
Putting him on a train now and again probably wouldn’t kill him. Getting him in a setting where he genuinely listens to and engages with the voters, rather than delivering lectures on his key priorities.
But trying to repackage him at this late stage of the political cycle is a fool’s errand. One that would also entail taking the public for fools.
They aren’t. The British people can smell political inauthenticity and a lack of constancy a mile off.
So Rishi Sunak should enjoy his California holiday. He’s earned it. In any case, those designer sliders would look a bit out of place at Butlin’s.
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