A few days before Rishi Sunak went on GB News tonight to be subjected to their “People’s Forum”, a small group of MPs in Portcullis House on the Parliamentary estate came up with a cunning plan about what he should do when he stepped on to the set.
The idea had come from concerns that Reform UK might push the party into third place in the Wellingborough by-election, but even more from the continued flirtation with Nigel Farage – Brexity Party leader turned GB News’ star presenter.
The “will he join the Tories?” to “do you want him to join?” exchanges over months since Farage turned up at the Conservative Party conference last October have begun to wear MPs down, especially as Farage takes every opportunity to say how useless Sunak, his government and the whole Conservative Party is in general.
“What he should do,” said one Tory backbencher, “is take Nigel’s Conservative Party membership card with him and hand it over with a flourish at the start of the show.
“Won’t matter that Farage won’t be there it can be forwarded on to him and Sunak can say ‘Here you are Nigel, just make up your mind! Do you want a socialist country or do you want to join us to stop that from happening?'”
There was some sage nodding of heads but another MP added: “They [Downing Street] probably wouldn’t have the imagination or guts to do it.”
It was basically pub talk with gallons of polling misery instead of pints of beer…
And it seems highly unlikely that the suggestion was passed on to Sunak and as mad as it seems, it may have been the sort of flourish (stunt) that could have started to shift the dial for a man who one of his government’s senior advisers admitted recently “the public has stopped listening to.”
Anyway the show’s host tonight was the urbane professional Stephen Dixon, a very different style to the combative Farage.
But to a certain extent there needs to be a “put up or shut up moment” with Farage and Reform, and the Prime Minister did take the issue head-on in a round of questions from members of the public which he was not prewarned about.
Jack from York got a round of applause when he said that he like other traditional Conservative voters felt that the party had abandoned traditional Conservative views and was now tempted by Reform.
In fairness to Sunak, his answer was straightforward and from the heart.
“Your values are my values,” he said. “I am dealing with the issues [such as immigration] that you want me to deal with.”
Sunak made a similar appeal in a one-to-one meeting with a rebel over the Rwanda Bill last month who thought it was too soft.
He is reported to have told the MP on the right of the party: “You know I am more of a Conservative at heart than Boris Johnson was. I am one of you.”
The MP was unconvinced but, apart from the angry member of the public who wanted to talk about the covid vaccine, the audience seemed to warm to a jacketless Sunak apparently trying to be honest.
And of course there was the “vote Reform, get Labour” message. Something voters in Wellingborough have been bombarded with recently.
However, as things progressed it became clear that the PM was getting increasingly nervous.
For keen observers of tics, especially among those who play poker, the Prime Minister has a very obvious one. He says the word “right?” as a question as a full stop to each of his sentences as he gets tense.
“I want to cut your taxes, right?”, “We should respect people’s choices, right?”, “Labour doesn’t have a plan, right?” and so it went on, right?
The tick set in noticeably after he was asked why trans people should vote Tory. An awkward question after the issues with Brianna Ghey’s family and his comment to Keir Starmer last week. No wonder he felt nervous about the LGBTQ+ lawyer asking the question.
It may also have been that he was prepared for people angry about paying high taxes and did not manage to get a question on the subject until he asked for one at the very end. John from Glasgow did the honours, also giving Sunak a chance to berate the SNP.
“You pay higher taxes in Scotland, right? That’s because we have cut taxes in England, right?”
One of the problems with Sunak is that people on the doorsteps, according to MPs, think he is unrelatable, rich and aloof. Tonight and events like it may help change that image.
But even if the PM is right-on and very personable in these situations, there was little tonight which will shift the dial of a 20-point Labour lead in the polls. And that is something for Tories to be nervous about, right?