Rishi Sunak’s strategy of quiet governance won’t deliver an election victory

One of the prayers in the 1662 Anglican Prayer Book entreats that we be “godly and quietly governed”. In other words, government should not just be reasonable and morally upright, there should also not be too much of it.  

Rishi Sunak appears to have taken this to heart, or at least the “quiet” bit, given the scandals which keep emerging around leading members of the Conservative Party.

After the frenzy of the short-lived Liz Truss regime, this is perfectly understandable. But does it actually enhance the prospects of the Tories at the next general election?

At first sight the answer would seem to be “yes”. Almost anything would be better, in terms of winning votes, than the chaos under Liz Truss.

But when examined under the lens of the so-called “peak-end rule”, Sunak’s quiet strategy looks much less promising.

Thirty years ago, the Nobel prize winning economist and top psychologist Daniel Kahneman theorised that people judge an experience not by some average over its entire length. Rather, their view is formed much more by how they felt at its most intense point – the peak – and at its end.

Kahneman and colleagues produced an impressive series of experiments in support of his proposition, and it always seemed to hold regardless of whether the experience was good or bad.

Like virtually everything in psychology, the theory has attracted criticism. But over the years, a substantial number of studies have come out with further evidence in its favour.

If the choices of the electorate are influenced by this rule, then a period of quiescence is not what is needed. The Truss interregnum was such an unpleasant peak that something really positive towards the end of the government’s term of office will be needed to even try to offset it.

Going way back, in 1956 the then Conservative government caused what was widely perceived as national humiliation at Suez. British and French forces had invaded Egypt to secure access to the Suez canal, which was being threatened by a new Egypt government. Within days, the United States gave both countries a dressing down, and they were compelled to withdraw.

But the economy flourished at the end of the 1950s, with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan coming up with his famous phrase “you’ve never had it so good”. At the 1959 election, the Tories won an increased majority.

In 1992, John Major secured what was an unexpected albeit narrow Conservative majority, despite the mild recession of 1991 and 1992. However, the huge economic boom, created by Chancellor Nigel Lawson in the late 1980s, with tax cuts galore, influenced the voters even more.

Things didn’t work out so well either for Labour in the 1960s or the Tories in the 1990s. At the end of their terms, the economy was growing strongly and living standards soared. But both governments were severely tainted by previous very negative experiences.

In 1967, Labour had been forced to devalue the pound – fixed exchange rates then existed. Prime Minister Harold Wilson attracted widespread ridicule for the phrase “the pound in your pocket has not been devalued” in a televised address to the nation. And in late 1992 the UK was summarily ejected from the precursor of the Euro, the ERM. The Conservative reputation for economic competence was thoroughly trashed.

In short, Sunak needs to be doing something rather than just hanging on hoping the voters will forget, because history says they won’t. 

As published in City AM Wednesday 25th January 2023
Paul Ormerod
Image: Wikimedia mvs.gov.ua

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