Pollsters warn Sunak: Stoking culture wars can’t save Tories

Rishi Sunak was warned today that his culture-war strategy will “not save the Tories”, as Sir Keir Starmer brutally mocked him at Prime Minister’s Questions by calling him “a jumped-up milk monitor”.

The Labour leader went on the attack over plans to ban “rainbow lanyards” in the civil service, as leading pollsters questioned the Tory strategy after the government unveiled plans to ban explicit sex education in schools until children turn 13 along with lessons about gender identity.

This latest foray into the culture wars followed a major speech on Monday by the common sense minister Esther McVey, in which she unveiled new civil service rules to end so-called “woke activism” in Whitehall and elsewhere, including a ban on rainbow lanyards.

Ministers also unveiled new stop and search powers for police in an effort to tackle knife crime.

The new strategy comes after the Techne UK weekly tracker poll recently showed that Labour’s lead over the Tories had increased to 24 points in the wake of Dover MP Natalie Elphicke’s defection over the small boats crisis.

Pollsters told The Independent that the strategy would not work, and that Mr Sunak needs to somehow get his message on the economy over to voters instead.

Rishi Sunak appears to have resorted to a culture-war strategy (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak appears to have resorted to a culture-war strategy (PA Wire)

Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said: “Culture issues are related to attitudes to Brexit, and divide party supporters more than they did. So they have some appeal for the Conservative base, but the principal reasons why people have left the Tories are the economy, the NHS, and leadership – not any failure to address cultural issues.

“It is not clear how a focus on them will win many back. Meanwhile, transgender [issues] apart, the anti-woke position is one with diminishing popularity. That’s probably why the issues are now being debated and causing concern among social conservatives.”

Robert Hayward, a Tory peer, noted: “[Culture-war issues] help only marginally. Shifting people is a series of building blocks. The Conservatives need to convince on things like economy first, then small items like that solidify their support.”

He added that the problem for Mr Sunak is that voters are not convinced by his party’s approach to the economy.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of polling company Techne UK, Michela Morizzo, warned: “A culture-war message cannot be the right way to collect votes for the Conservatives. We all know that in such uncertain times, people are only looking to feel safe and economically sustainable. Ideological battles, at the moment, are not a winning strategy.”

Sir Keir lampooned the prime minister about the proposals in what turned out to be a torrid PMQs for Mr Sunak. The Labour leader accused his opposite number of being a “jumped-up milk monitor” obsessed with “confiscating lanyards”.

Continuing a series of jokes about the prime minister’s drive to stop civil servants from wearing pro-LGBT+ lanyards to work, Sir Keir said he should instead be more worried about letting prisoners out of jail early.

The Labour leader said: “The only answer to the question I asked about whether domestic abusers should be exempt from his early release scheme, for anyone serious about security, is ‘Yes.’

John Curtice does not believe that fighting culture-war issues is a winning strategy (Getty)
John Curtice does not believe that fighting culture-war issues is a winning strategy (Getty)

“Perhaps the most ludicrous part of his speech on Monday was when he said he won’t accept the idea that any of the problems people are facing are caused by the 14 years of Conservative government.”

Mr Sunak highlighted Britain’s GDP growth figures, which the Office for National Statistics said showed that the economy is “going gangbusters”.

The raft of hardline policies has delighted Tory MPs on the right of the party, but opened Mr Sunak’s government to accusations that it is trying to restore its flagging fortunes by launching a culture-war strategy.

Luke Tryl, executive director of More in Common and a former adviser to Nicky Morgan when she was Tory education secretary, was also critical of the approach.

Esther McVey has proposed a ban on rainbow lanyards in the civil service (PA Archive)
Esther McVey has proposed a ban on rainbow lanyards in the civil service (PA Archive)

He said: “I think most of the electorate will find it a little odd (and frustrating) that the focus seems to be on lanyards and curtailing sex education, given the challenges the country faces.

“Obviously, people want kids to be protected, but they’d like the government to start with smartphones and social media. There is also a risk that goes beyond this election, that the Tories toxify their brand by appearing too out of tune with modern Britain.”

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle said: “Governments that try culture wars usually lose – look at Australia. This government has run for the last three years on culture wars.”

He added: “Publishing guidelines on sex ed is, however, very sensible – but guidelines are just that: suggestions, not rules.”

Furious Labour MP Nadia Whittome added: “The government is focusing on culture-war nonsense because they have no solutions to the crises they’ve created – from housing and the NHS to the cost of living.

“So they’re announcing policies aimed at ramping up discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, in an attempt to desperately cling on to the hard-right voters amongst their base and avoid complete wipeout at the next general election.

“It won’t work, of course, but it will add to the increasingly hostile environment LGBTQ+ people are facing.”

But the moves have been welcomed by the Tory right, especially MPs from the influential New Conservatives group set up by Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates to push the party leadership on culture-war issues.

Ms Cates told The Independent that the announcements made by the government this week show “definitely some progress”.

Another New Conservative group member, Tom Hunt, who is also deputy chair of the right-wing Common Sense Group, said he is “pleased” with this week’s announcements as well as a reduction in immigration numbers. He said that things are “massively heading in the right direction”.

Tory deputy chair Jonathan Gullis, who helped to found the New Conservatives group, claimed that “the penny has finally dropped” with the government on these issues.

Their comments follow recent concerns in Downing Street that MPs on the right could trigger a leadership vote against Mr Sunak. Meanwhile, there have been warnings that Tory voters are peeling away to Nigel Farage’s Reform UK, or refusing to vote because they do not think the Conservative Party is sufficiently right-wing.

Another right-winger, Dudley North MP Marco Longhi, said: “I’m delighted, and I don’t underestimate the magnitude of the fight against woke. It has spread like a cancer and caused irreparable damage in many settings, and harmed individuals. Eradicating it is going to be difficult, but it’s the right fight to have.”