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OPINION - I now think Rishi Sunak is going to win the next election

 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

Predicting the future in politics is a notoriously foolish endeavour. So at a dinner on Monday when asked about the next election by an erudite CEO, I took a large swig of red wine before replying. In my humble opinion, I said, Rishi Sunak was going to swing it, before adding a few caveats.

I have long thought Sunak was the Prime Minister we needed for these extraordinarily troubled times. I wrote a column in this newspaper last February when Boris Johnson’s problems were spiralling, saying this country was soon going to need Sunak’s work ethic and sizeable brain. Even during that awful Tory leadership race, when it was clear that Liz Truss was going to win, I continued to argue that Sunak had the right attributes for the job, and she did not.

This certainly does not amount to ardent fervour or soothsaying. By January, belief that our new Prime Minister had the ingredients for successful political leadership felt stretched to breaking point. The Conservatives remained damaged and split, with Sunak operating like a remote bot. Labour, meanwhile, appeared normal and decent, aping the cool confidence of winners.

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Given that the polls are still averaging on an 18-point lead, I appreciate many will think I’ve lost all political intuition. Twelve years of Tory government and we have crippling inflation, strikes, a flat-lining economy, despair in the NHS and the squeezed middle classes breathless from belt tightening. Our mortgages have ticked up again; everyone is feeling poorer, food banks are busier than ever and the yawning, immoral divide between those who own assets and those who do not, gets ever bigger. In this city, we still lack housing, our police force is a disgrace, and the London Underground has the highest fares in the world.

And yet…

This week we finally saw the Tories expunge the last of the populist poison of Brexit. Boris Johnson may survive the parliamentary committee grilling but he won’t be returning to Number 10. The big rebellion fell flat. Healing Brexit wounds was vital before this country could move on. Just 22 voted against Sunak’s Northern Ireland protocol plan — the longest war in modern politics is done. The Johnson/Brexit bandwagon is over, and Sunak saw it off with quiet deeds not angry words.

Swing voters look like they are assured by the recent entente cordiale and Sunak can pedal full steam ahead with the Stormont Brake and the Windsor Framework, easing trading tensions with Europe. Ministers plan to ratify the Framework today and can prepare for a visit from President Biden. Who knows, maybe those American trade deal talks can begin?

Next week’s RMT rail strikes have been averted. Nurses are negotiating. There is little groundswell of support for striking junior doctors. And although inflation continues to be a serious concern, there is hope that it will drop by the end of this year, despite the wobbles in global banking.

Taken together they are sizeable achievements (though we don’t count lowering inflation). One recent poll says the gap between the parties has narrowed to 10 points. And a key Labour supporter close to the inner sanctum admitted to me that they personally think this election won’t be the one.

These are real wins but they are not enough. Success is possible because the Tories understand the art of winning elections.

As PM, Sunak must own the UK’s myriad problems; he also has the levers of power to make change happen.

Yesterday, Starmer was in Stoke-on-Trent announcing ambitious promises to halve the levels of violence against women in 10 years, which will feel empty to those suffering right now, despite his resolve.The Prime Minister, meanwhile, was in Wales, hailing two new freeports — immediate jobs and investment. The Tories will ruthlessly target voter concerns. Many may loathe the constant reference to migrants and boats, but on the doorstep in the Red Wall they list stopping illegal immigrants over problems in the NHS.

In the last Budget they zoned in on childcare support (female swing voters), handed more relief to rich pensioners (older Tory voters). And overall, Sunak has the fresher ideas and is delivering solutions.

I’m not saying it’s a job done, or that I’ll eat anyone’s hat (least of all my own) if Labour win. And I genuinely like Sir Keir and Rachel Reeves. But some are whispering it in Westminster: The Tories might win again. And I’m one of them.

The job of reforming Met is too big for Rowley

The details in this week’s shocking review into the Met by Baroness Casey have stunned even the most hardened critics of the Metropolitan Police. The image of fridges overflowing with food alongside samples from abandoned rape cases is an image I cannot scratch from my mind.

The sheer wilful arrogance and disregard for women’s pain and humiliation will stick in many people’s craws, especially when read in the knowledge of what we learnt from the murder of Sarah Everard and the collective misogynistic bile that we discovered passed between serving officers on WhatsApp about women they knew.

What is clear is that given Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley still believes, despite everything Casey has reported on, that the Met is not institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic, he therefore cannot be the one to run the very institution that is meant to police this city.

The Met is too large, too broken, and too protected by its own to continue in its current form. And reform must be handed to those from the outside. Outsiders, too, that Londoners can trust.

Rowley’s complete lack of humility proves that he is clearly not up to that job.

Proof that politics can make you happy

Watching Rory Stewart spring about the stage of the Palladium this week, doing a Scottish jig during a live episode of his and Alistair Campbell’s podcast The Rest is Politics, I was struck by the extraordinarily delightful success of their partnership. And I suspect both men are too. It proves that politics can be life-affirming.