How Rishi Sunak tried to weaponise information only to shoot himself in the foot

OV Desk

Could it be that British politics is slipping into some post-satire phase of confusion and condemnation?

The second full week of the 2024 election campaign was definitely beyond satire – and will probably be remembered for three things.

First and foremost, this was the week Rishi Sunak went populist. His claim that Labour’s tax plans would cost households £2,000 in tax was a form of fake news. There was never any intention to be truthful about this figure, it was merely a device for forging a simple mental association between the words “tax” and “Labour”.

It was intended to mislead, while at the same time making it possible for Sunak to deflect any blame onto anonymous Treasury officials, whom he claimed had come up with the figures. He perhaps did not bank on them calling him out.

When information is weaponised in this way, it is the repetition of the argument, rather than the credibility of the case, that matters.

This was targeted manipulation of public concerns on specific topics. “Labour is lying. Labour will cost you.”

And this is the key issue. Sunak “won” the debate only in the sense that he created a furore that revolved around “Labour+tax”. The aim was never to tell the truth: it was an attempt to tap into longstanding cultural concerns about Labour’s fiscal credibility.

Post-event analyses, truth-checkers, counter claims, sleaze busters, bean counters and even accusations of lying risked only falling into the trap that the prime minister had sought to lay by perpetuating a debate over Labour’s tax policies.

Boris Johnson used humour to play with the truth but this was the week that Sunak adopted a low-blow strategy.

Misfiring in every direction

This was the week that will also undoubtedly be remembered for the re-entry of the most populist celebrity politician the United Kingdom has ever known – Nigel Farage.

Sunak’s shift in style is no doubt related to this development. The “Farage effect” for the prime minister appears to have been to convince him that, with the opinion polls stubbornly sticking to a large Labour lead, a large dose of populist politics was the only thing that might save the day.

It didn’t. In weaponising information, Sunak seems to have achieved the political equivalent of a self-inflicted injury. His reputation as a prime minister appears diminished rather than bolstered. Farage’s Reform party, meanwhile, is apparently increasing in popularity to the extent that some commentators have even identified July 4 as an “extinction event” for the Conservatives.

The truth of the matter, however, is that no one “won” the television debate. British democracy lost.

Which brings us to the third defining moment of the week and the point at which Sunak really did pay the price for playing fast and lose with the truth – having to leave the D-day commemoration events early to conduct a TV interview about his election debate behaviour.

Never has a self-inflicted political injury looked quite so bad. Could the leader of the Conservative party have played into Nigel Farage’s hands any better if they’d tried? Given that Farage spent much of his “emergency” announcement speech two days previously ruing lost respect for D-day, the answer is “probably not”.

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So far, this election campaign has done nothing to shift the popular view of politics. Sunak’s screeching and shouting in the debate, plus Starmer’s refusal to provide any short, sharp, simple answers to question of policy probably served to simply confirm the public’s increasingly embedded belief that politicians are simply not to be trusted.

The problem for British politics is that it is exactly this anti-political sentiment that persuasive populist politicians are so good at inflaming and funnelling for their own advantage.

The 2024 general election campaign was looking decidedly dull and lifeless until Farage entered the race. He clearly recognised the advantage of highlighting this state of affairs, claiming on his first day of campaigning that he would be “gingering things up”.

While a touch of colour might make things interesting for British politics, let’s hope it doesn’t come at the cost of what’s good for the health of British democracy.The Conversation

Matthew Flinders, Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.