Laura Kuenssberg: Reshuffle deals drama but voters more worried about wallets

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By Laura Kuenssberg
Presenter, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg

Crash, bang, wallop! An adrenalin hit of headlines. A massive bust-up. A big surprise. And a clash in the courts.

Westminster’s gorged itself this week on some of its favourite pastimes: obsessing over who is slithering up or down in the game of political snakes and ladders; pondering the edges of our stretchy, unwritten constitution as the courts and government do battle; and, of course, frantically trying to predict what is next.

Fully paid-up political nerds, myself included, have been glued to the spectacle of the last seven days.

Bitter sackings, vitriolic public letters, the prime minister vowing to take on the courts, even talk of letters calling for his resignation going in. (“You’d just look like idiots,” one senior MP tells me he told his more excitable colleagues.)

But for the ultimate boss, the voter, all the drama might have fallen on confused, or even deaf, ears.

The signals from government been mixed, to put it diplomatically. In all the soap opera, has the prime minister been moving to the left or to the right?

Getting rid of Suella Braverman at the start of the week, gave the impression No 10 wanted to take a softer tack.

But when the Supreme Court ruled against the government’s plan to send migrants to Rwanda, up popped Rishi Sunak with seemingly tough language, claiming he won’t let “foreign courts”, stand in his way.

In fact, the ruling was based on both international and UK law, so the notion the problem has been created just by meddling courts in a faraway land is misleading. Whatever your view of the plans, the court referred to British laws that say refugees must not be put at a real risk of harm.

And the PM promised “emergency” new laws – political speak for plans that need to sound bold and important.

Yes, that’s the party that sees itself as the bastion of law and order, saying when it doesn’t like the long-predicted verdict of our highest court, it will just change the rules instead, with the prime minister vowing to do “whatever it takes” to make it happen.

Whatever it takes?

That’s not entirely true, because No 10 does not seem willing to follow the much more drastic steps sketched out, entirely predictably, by the departing home secretary to get planes in the sky.

It’s worth saying whatever Downing Street comes up with (and watch this space), the chances of keeping the right of the Tory party happy appear vanishingly small. Members of the public would be absolutely entitled this weekend to be scratching their heads and wondering if the controversial plan the prime minister has committed to time and again, the “stop the boats” slogan that screeches from government lecterns, is ever really going to happen.

Research carried out by the polling group, More in Common, helps explore the real world reaction. And a flavour of voters’ views from focus groups about Mrs Braverman suggests there is real division – the most common words chosen to describe her include, “brave” and “outspoken”, but “racist” features there too.

Then a former PM was brought back into the fold.

“Cameron??” to quote one of the messages that blew up on my phone when the news broke.

It was job done for No 10 if they wanted to create headlines out of their reshuffle that would distract from the Suella show.

There were MPs on his former wing of the much-changed Conservative Party who were delighted that someone with his experience is back in town. That was reflected by voters too, with comments in focus groups such as: “Old knowledge in a team is always good”, while another said: “He’s probably been brought back to give the party some sort of stability because at the moment it just seems to be a lot of just infighting.”

The word voters chose more than any other to describe the now Lord Cameron was “experienced”. Tick!

But words like “Brexit” and “past” and “idiot” feature pretty heavily too.

Here are the words voters used:

You wouldn’t be alone if you felt a bit puzzled.

That’s not just because you might have to squint to imagine how the leader of the failed Remain campaign can become the architect of UK foreign policy after Brexit. As one voter said: “I’m really angry about it if I’m honest. I think he really divided the country down to families being one side of the argument or the other.”

But it also risks highlighting the government’s dreadful polling position, as well as the experience gap between the current and former prime minister, as if the much younger Rishi Sunak has got in trouble, lost his bus fare and has had to phone his dad to come and pick him up.

One senior party figure asked: “Who is the prime minister here? Sunak is the prefect and Cameron’s the headmaster.”

That point is picked up by some voters, one remarking: “It kind of smacks of desperation a bit, because they’ve had to resort to that in order to get any kind of stability in the party.”

There’s another point of confusion. Rishi Sunak’s last big swing was at the Conservative Party conference when he styled himself as the candidate of change, hammering the point by criticising what he called the 30-year consensus and the status quo.

This was no small move, but a considered big strategic decision to pitch the prime minister like this, when other tacks had failed.

Now, in blunt terms, how can you convincingly be the change guy, if you are bringing back the old guy?

Inevitably this changing tack has been noticed by the backbenches. One senior figure says: “We have all been trying to read the tea leaves, but not able to drink the tea” because “No 10 keeps changing its mind all the time.”

Whether on small boats or David Cameron sauntering back into government, all the hullabaloo in Westminster this week hasn’t been on the stresses and strains most relevant to most voters’ lives.

Jeremy Hunt has a chance to show the Tories are listening to people’s concerns with the Autumn Statement

Research shared with us this week from More in Common, consistent with polling for months and months, shows that making ends meet is by miles at the top of the list – 71% of those asked put it as their highest concern.

Worries about the NHS was the next priority, but some distance behind at 40%.

Only 17% named asylum seekers crossing the channel as their biggest worry, behind climate change at 23%.

It’s foolish to read too much into any one snapshot, and one week of polling is, of course, just that. But as the prime minister wriggles uncomfortably over his chosen small boats priority, as the Tory party wrangles over the direction No 10 really wants to take, it is a reminder that neither of those issues are the public’s most common concern.

One senior Tory MP admits: “Most people just want to be able to pay their bills and get a doctor’s appointment.”

On Wednesday, the Chancellor has a chance to help people do just that with the Autumn Statement.

On this week’s show are Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves
Watch live on BBC One and iPlayer from 09:00 BST on Sunday

Follow latest updates in text and video on the BBC News website from 08:00

The pressure is on Jeremy Hunt to act on those very real concerns. Number 10 was cock-a-hoop, at least for half an hour or so, when this week’s inflation numbers showed price rises slowing down, mainly due to falling energy prices. But remember, slowing inflation doesn’t remove high prices, it just means costs aren’t going up so fast.

As that polling suggests, making ends meet is a challenge for millions of families.

From the splurge of early briefings it is not clear what Jeremy Hunt will actually propose to do to help. There’s also the potential political contradiction of dangling a tax cut for a tiny number of families affected by inheritance tax, while taking much more from millions in income tax.

That is not because the Chancellor has actually put income tax up, but because more and more people are getting dragged into paying higher rates. (This has one of the least attractive names in Treasury jargon, fiscal drag, but is one of the most significant and little talked about changes to how the government makes its sums add up.)

It is also, at the risk of sounding prim, worth noting how unusual it is for the Treasury to be teasing quite so much around tax cuts just before a big statement like this.

One former Treasury minister told me it’s “extraordinary” they have been so open. Is it – as they archly note – “just to chuck red meat to the Suella brigade” after a bumpy week?

The overall economic picture is not pretty. Growth has stalled. The government is spending an absolute fortune paying interest on its huge debts. Taxes and government spending are both at historic levels, a nightmare for Conservative purists who, after all, hope their party stands for leaner government and lower tax.

It is a challenge to those in the Conservative Party, and, of course, the opposition, who want more resources for public services. Overall the former Treasury minister notes brutally, “we are in a really bad spot – do I see a coherent strategy? No!”

The overwhelming concern for the chancellor and the prime minister to respond to is to help families and firms feel consistently better off. The drama that’s consumed Westminster these last seven days isn’t likely to make much difference to that.

Jeremy Hunt has a chance to change that on Wednesday. But it’s just not clear that the neighbours in No 10 and 11 can make the sums, and the politics, add up.

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