Can Sunak find a winning comms miracle?

Can Sunak find a winning comms miracle?

24 May 2024

See us in Marketing Beat

After taking the country off-guard and announcing a surprisingly early summer election, Rishi Sunak now faces the toughest of challenges if he is to remain in No.10.

The polls couldn’t be much worse for the Tories, down by an average of 22% on Labour. It’s a gap that’s been consistently widening since Boris Johnson’s win in 2019.

Isobel managing partner Jamie Williams considers what the Conservatives and Labour parties need to do from a comms perspective if they are to win the election on 4 July.

The May local elections were some of the worst ever for an incumbent government, there has been a series of depressing by-elections over the past few years and – most recently – a trickle of defector MPs have abandoned the Tory ship, adding to the doom and gloom.

So, how to win?

Well, Sunak didn’t get off to the perfect start, announcing the election while being drenched by the pouring spring rain, played out to New Labour’s 1997 theme music, ‘Things can only get better’. Perhaps, for Sunak, things can only get wetter?

But perhaps all is not lost. If a week in politics is a long time, then six weeks is an age. If the Tories are to stand any sort of chance against Sir Keir Starmer’s ‘Changed Labour Party’, their communications strategy and execution must be on another level .

From ‘Labour isn’t working’ to ‘Take back control’, the impact of communications and advertising in politics  can’t be underestimated. So, as the Tory brains sit in Whitehall to plot their campaign, what key messages and strategies do they have in their armoury, and how can they engage an audience  that has (if the polls are right), largely turned against them?

First, leading with the positive news – it’s the economy stupid. With inflation rates down to near normal levels, below wage increases and interest rate cuts on the horizon, can Rishi Sunak position his government as the party for long-term economic stability and growth?

Can Labour threaten this long-term plan, which is just starting to show signs of working? Given the cost-of-living crisis that has affected so many people in this country, and the painful memories of the Truss and Kwarteng economic blunder, this certainly won’t be easy.

But the Tories have always enjoyed an ‘economic stability’ perception advantage over Labour, and Rishi Sunak’s personal brand values are built on economics and intelligence. No doubt, there is an opportunity here.

Will Sunak get personal?

Then there is the more emotive personality match up. Will the Tories be able to frame Sir Keir Starmer as an ex-Corbyn backer and ally, and a lefty danger to the country’s security and progress?

Digging into the numbers, there does appear to be an opening here. While Labour’s lead in the polls is absolute and hugely impressive, Sir Keir Starmer’s personal approval ratings  aren’t great. A 20 May YouGov approval rating poll had the Labour leader on -10%. It prompts the question – is there an ‘anyone but the Tories’ sentiment in the country, or is there a genuine excitement to vote in Keir Starmer as our next PM?

If it’s the later, then as the polls narrow towards 4 July, this becomes a far bigger factor.

Then there is the ‘coalition of chaos’ strategy. The Tories have the opportunity to attempt to portray an evil liberal coalition waiting in the wings, should voters turn against them. With the feasible possibility of a hung parliament, there is a situation where the Labour Party could in theory team up with both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP to form a government.

For the soft turned-off Tory vote, who will either stay at home or vote elsewhere in protest or apathy, the idea of the SNP governing in Westminster might be the spark to get them back into line, even if its begrudgingly.

Embrace the mood of the nation

A more optimistic strategy might be to tap into the mood of the nation.

Sunak announcing a summer election, right in the middle of a major football tournament that England might do very well in, with the Olympics coming next, and with some interest rate cuts on the horizon, might mean there is a swelling of national pride and contentedness with the status quo.

It’s a very hard one to measure, and if you’re a Tory strategist, you certainly wouldn’t want to be relying on this one. In fact, if Labour can effectively position themselves as the great hope for change and a better future, with the sun on their backs and Harry Kane leading England into the knockout stages of the Euros, there could be some serious Tony Blair ‘New Labour, New Life for Britain’ 1997 vibes.

And lastly, are there any Conservative Party surprise branded assets that can be utilised? Is David Cameron a secret weapon, or could Boris Johnson come back to play a key role in raising Tory spirits?

Ultimately, the country gets the government that it wants. And currently, our country seems to want change. The Conservatives – and Sunak – feel like a train that’s run out of steam, approaching a dead-end platform. They feel fractured, with deep divisions on policy and leadership.

But communications are a powerful weapon. If they can pick the right strategy and find ways of effectively engaging the key swing voters, in the right constituencies, with a tone of voice of confidence and passion, then things might be a lot closer than many pundits predict.