“Better the devil you know” is not an inspiring election slogan, but it has worked in the past. Rishi Sunak grabbed it readily when it was offered by a reporter after his latest “big” speech. He did not bother to articulate the softer version of the same sentiment about the need to “always keep a hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse”. Warnings that Labour would be worse ran through his words. 

It was a rock-bottom appeal from a prime minister who has been out of luck for all of his short time in office, during which both opinion polls and real election results have stubbornly refused to budge in the Conservative’s direction. 

His latest attempt to set out election battle lines was indeed something like “the prime minister’s seventh reset in 18 months”, as the Labour press operation was quick to allege. In October at the last party conference, Sunak set out to end the “30-year political status quo”. Now he said he was proud of the Conservatives’ track record in government in the past fourteen years.

Given his track record, there is no guarantee that Sunak will stick to this latest campaigning theme between now and the next general election. If he does, he could at the least give Sir Keir Starmer some awkward moments. It is far from certain however that the wider electorate will be persuaded that this will be a Union Jack election in which the Conservatives uniquely offer national security. 

The prime minister is “convinced the next few years will be some of the most dangerous yet most transformational our country has ever known.” The threats he identified are unspecific – except for mass migration – and updated Cold War thinking. He warned of the dangers of nuclear escalation citing “an axis of authoritarian states” including Russia, China, North Korea and Iran

Sunak hopes to play his firm pledge to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2030 as his trump card against Labour. This will hit the spot with core Tory supporters, as will the references to Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Nato and allegedly anti “army” stances. It will be harder to change minds.  

Starmer has already committed to the same spending levels “when resources allow”. In contrast to their pledges for the future, the Conservatives themselves have a patchy record for defence spending. Some £54 billion in funding in the current year is less than the £57 billion when David Cameron was elected. 

Starmer responded to Sunak by accusing the Conservatives of “hollowing out the armed services.”  He will now come under pressure to be more specific about Labour’s more obscure intentions. Unless the issue clearly shifts public opinion, he is unlikely to budge. Of course, were his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves to commit to finding the £87 billion needed for the extra defence, Sunak’s assault would be comprehensively routed, though not without more muttering in Labour ranks. 

Defence has always been a sensitive issue in the Labour party which embraces peacenik and anti-nuclear elements in its membership. This, along with Brexit, may explain why Starmer has resisted setting out his vision of Britain’s place in the world. Confronting the real challenges of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Hamas’ terror attack on Gaza, Starmer has marched in lock step with the government. 

Sunak says the Conservatives should not be judged by Liz Truss’s brief premiership but he wants to concentrate on Corbyn’s few years as leader of the opposition. Reaching further back into the “past”, which the prime minster is trying to denounce, a Labour Prime Minister called Tony Blair was as ready to go to war in defence of British interests as Margaret Thatcher. 

Starmer’s statement that “national security will be my first priority” is almost boring in its predictability. Reacting to Sunak’s speech “scoring political points” Sir David Omand, a former head of CCHQ, observed wearily that there is a de facto bipartisan approach to national security. 

Until now both leaders have largely franchised out foreign policy to members of their cabinet teams. David Cameron has relished bestriding the diplomatic stage and defence secretary Grant Shapps was the first to talk of living in a “pre-war phase”. Labour’s John Healey has earned respect from both sides of the house for his dedication to his defence brief, while David Lammy has been busily cultivating international ties. 

Sunak says he is sticking to “the second half of the year” formula for the general election date. This should guarantee his mandatory participation in the Club of World Leaders at the G7 50th anniversary summit in Italy in June and NATO’s 75th in Washington DC in July. Who represents the UK at the G20 in Rio de Janeiro in November will most likely be decided by the voters. Sunak said on Monday he still believes that he will be re-elected. 

The bright “future” which Sunak promises is built around his special interest in Artificial Intelligence. He sees no reason why Britain cannot lead in the transformative digital age in the way that it did in the industrial revolution. This somewhat bold boast ignores the head start that California has already established. 

Meanwhile, Labour is happy to dwell on the past if it is the Conservative past. The party’s designated attack dog Jonathan Ashworth shot back: “After 14 years of leaving the country less secure at home and abroad, the Tories have forfeited the right to talk about security”. Labour’s complaints include the standard of living, crime and punishment, and border control – the areas covered in the 5 pledges, which Sunak appears to be moving on from. 

How much attention will Sunak’s latest big speech command? Will any of this debate change prospects in the general election? Foreign policy seldom seems to move opinion much. The wars in Ukraine and Russia are plain to all. So are the threats proposed by “the axis of authoritarianism” and concerns about new technology (which the PM’s cosy chat with Elon Musk failed to assuage.) This year, according to YouGov, 19 per cent of Britons now list “defence and security” as a top 3 issue. Concern has almost doubled to 31 per cent among Conservative voters, but it has risen a mere 2 per cent since 2023 to 11 per cent for Labour supporters.

In the battle of the slogans, the election is set to be “Time for a Change” versus “The Devil You Know”. The threatening circumstances the prime minister has just described have not left him with “Don’t Let Labour Spoil It” as an option. 

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