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Rishi Sunak just turned into a Tory Gordon Brown – and that should really concern him


The last time a Prime Minister was surprisingly introduced by his wife for his big party conference speech was in 2009 when Sarah Brown was the warm-up act for Gordon.

When Akshata Murthy appeared on the stage in Manchester today to talk about her love and belief for her husband Rishi Sunak it had eerie echoes of Mrs Brown’s appearance 14 years ago.

In 2009 Gordon Brown was in the midst of an economic crisis which he as the previous Chancellor was held partly responsible for.

He was staring at an election the next year, falling behind in the polls and was being beset by criticism for having no mandate having been appointed as Tony Blair’s replacement by the party’s MPs.

The circumstances faced by Sunak at the Conservative conference in 2023 are near-identical.

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Sunak has no mandate having been appointed last year to replace Liz Truss.

Like Brown to Blair, Sunak is blamed for removing a charismatic Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

He is overseeing an economic crisis partly of his making and staring at election defeat next year.

But more than that the reason the wives were deployed in 2009 and 2023 is because nobody knew who Gordon Brown really was as a personality or what his vision was and the same was true of Sunak today.

Despite making some bold announcements and big decisions in his address to the remainder of the party faithful who had not jumped on the last train out of Manchester before the strike started, Sunak did not really answer that question today.

What we got was the conference’s rather clunking slogan “long term decisions for a brighter future” repeated on a number of occasions.

There was a plan to make smoking history, a much-needed decision to scrap HS2 and send the money on useful transport infrastructure in Red Wall areas, good lines on Brexit, a vague promise on stopping the boats and an even vaguer one on cutting taxes.

But none of it added up to a vision.

A bit like 2009, there was no “Brownism” and in 2023 there is no “Sunakism”.

Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss had a great deal more clarity this week in her rival vision on tax cuts and growth, one lapped up by party members and shared vehemently by Tory MPs on the right.

It may be that a pragmatic, perhaps more traditional Conservative approach will help save Sunak.

But it cannot have helped that one of the warm-up speeches by Penny Mordaunt “we must fight for our lives” was more coherent and inspiring.

The warning of 2009 is that Sarah Brown and the conference speech did not propel Gordon Brown to victory the following year but defeat, albeit close enough to force David Cameron to have a coalition with the Lib Dems.

In 2024 the Lib Dems will be waiting for Labour to make a deal instead.

The polls still show that a third of voters plan to stay at home next time, many of them were 2019 Tory voters. While only half the Conservative 2019 vote will definitely support them again.

Sunak will have to offer more than cancelled rail lines and a ban on smoking to inspire voters to tick the Conservative box again.

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