Sunak’s Californian Plan

It is no secret that our intermittently fasting, Peloton and Patagonia Prime Minister has a superfan attraction to all things West Coast. He’s more Stanford than Stafford. More Pacific Coast Highway than A1(M).

It is relevant to ask, then, who Sunak’s Cali muse might be. The archetype, the personality, that informs his view of the world, guides his leadership style, shapes his global technocratic bro-attitude, even providing him with his election strategy for the year ahead.

Here, though, we take a turn away from the valley, towards the hills. See, it’s a Hollywood icon who embodies very precisely the strategy the Prime Minister has clearly landed upon, more so than any Silicon Valley billionaire or San Francisco startup investor, no matter how much he might drink the organic, charcoal-infused Kool-Aid of California’s north.

Not a real tech millionaire, obviously. No, this is Hollywood after all. A fictional one.

It’s Forrest. Forrest Gump.

Now, Forrest taught us a lot in his brief time. Entrepreneurship. Friendship. Dr Pepper makes you need the loo. But it’s a specific insight of Mr Gump’s that Mr Sunak has seemingly doubled down upon as the cornerstone of his election strategy in 2024. In fact, increasingly, it appears to be the whole strategy. More surprising still, whisper it, it might just be the smartest strategy available to him. It might just work.

The strategy, and the lesson from Gump, relies upon a simple truth:

Shit happens when you’re running.

Forrest is running coast to coast, running without a clear reason to run (an unkind observation might be made at this point, but I will resist), attracting a strange crowd of hangers on, each running with their own reasons (it is really hard not to make that observation…).

Then Shit Happens. 

A puddle of poo, a wipe of Forrest’s face, and suddenly we have the accidental invention of the iconic smiley face yellow T-shirt and two-word slogan that would define a generation of Americans. That easy. That big. That unexpected.

Events, dear boy, events might be the more traditional SW1 language in which to couch Sunak’s ‘shit happens’ strategy, but in reality the plan is even more opportunistic and chaotic than that. The logic of hanging on for an autumn election when every indicator is that it’ll be a trouncing is that there’s a lot of road to run between now and then, a lot of puddles that nobody can see, and each and every step is a roll of the dice.

Shit 100% will happen between now and the black and white signs being raised in front of primary schools and church halls, it’s only a matter of what shit, and with what result. The chaotic world that daily coughs up so much, from wars to financial crises, immigration dog whistles to octogenarian Americans running against wannabe dictators. The only certainty is the chaos. The strategy that is guiding our Prime Minister’s election decision-making does not look to navigate or mitigate that chaos (such as one might, naively, believe to be in the national interest), it is entirely dependent upon it. To return to Silicon Valley, it’s a feature, not a bug.

Labour insiders have been relentless in sharing, and sticking to, the mantra. Overconfidence is their most likely path to defeat. Head office warnings and pre-match nerves are sweeping the corridors and meeting rooms of election planning. Not a vote has yet been cast. Polls mean literally nothing. Nobody has voted. NOBODY HAS VOTED.

The new world in which those votes have not yet been cast is also crucial to understand, particularly as politicos argue amongst themselves over which generation-old, largely irrelevant electoral precedent ought to form the comparison with the coming contest. The mechanics now exist in our media, in our use of technology and perhaps even in our always-breaking-news post-2016 minds to enable much more rapid spread of new consensus, content and, of course, anger. Poll leads, even if the polling is accurate, are simply more transitory and ephemeral than in political history. The means to challenge and change them are vastly more powerful, immediate and available than ever before. This will be the first GB News election, the first AI election, the first Ukraine election. The puddles on the road ahead are not just many, they are toxic and new. More shit will happen than usual, and that shit will be more able than ever before to change a lot of people’s minds.

The strategy

This new reality makes Sunak’s strategy worryingly sensible. Toxic events that will take place between now and autumn will do so in a world absolutely primed to politicise them, to use every new splash to divide and terrify, to weaponise every new story to reinforce pre-existing opinions and latent fears. Just this week, the appalling events in Clapham are proving precisely that.

The counter-strategy to ‘shit happens’ is simple in theory but profoundly difficult in practice. An incumbent government actively looking out for the unforeseen (and highly divisive or toxic) is in an exceptionally strong position, able to point a largely friendly media and parliamentary attention towards whichever puddle they have chosen to land. With that ability comes the risk we will be forced, through sheer volume of information and anger, to forget the reality on the ground, the fourteen years, the broken everything, just because a light is flashing. And a light is always flashing.

The response to a strategy so dependent on embracing the firework-display of competing events jostling for our attention must be to do the opposite. Fewer, more consistent, less responsive promises. Sober not sudden. The difficulty in actually following that advice is that once there is (to torture the Forrest Gump analogy) mud on your face, it’s hard to resist the need to wipe it off, to engage with the shit. But that engagement is the trap. The Conservatives would like nothing more than six months of arguments about asylum seekers, all-gender toilets, Jeremy Corbyn (there is no way one of the Sundays hasn’t been holding back a nice big Corbyn story until the election run-up), Putin probably wanting Starmer to win, England players taking the knee and vegan breakfasts being served at Labour-run council meetings. It’s hard to keep the conversation on NHS waiting lists and Great British Energy when there’s a photo on the front page of a ‘bloke in a dress’ using the ladies loo, and Kemi is ever so cross about it, all across the TV studio rounds.

That, then, is the challenge facing Labour now. In the midst of the chaos, to be calm. To cling to the certainty that Britain is very badly broken and people do not want more of the same, and resolutely to set out precisely how, and for whom, a different path will be navigated. To dodge the incoming traps, the knee-jerk need to engage on every newly minted Conservative talking point.

The refrain ought to be “can we please return to actual policy, not just commentary on events?” The Tory plan is reliant on that most enduring Gump truism, that life is like a box of chocolates, providing them with an unlikely route to escape in the coming months. The culture warriors and GB News anchors are hungry to dive in, to get grubby in a celebration tin of populist opportunities. They will get their chances. Starmer & co must resist the lure of the shiny wrappers and the quick hit of argument. But, as we all know, just one can’t do any harm…

 

This column is part of media strategist Alex Hesz’s ‘Mission Messaging’ series for Progressive Britain. If you enjoyed this piece, check out the previous instalment, The Radical Middle.