The Insider

Sunak’s ‘project fear’ won’t work

The argument that only the Tories can save Britain is completely implausible after 14 years in power

May 15, 2024
Sunak delivering his speech at Policy Exchange. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Sunak delivering his speech at Policy Exchange. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

In a peculiar speech this week, Rishi Sunak lumped together a host of dangers supposedly facing Britain—from Russia and China to AI, wokeism, energy security, economic dislocation and Scottish nationalism—as unprecedented threats which can only be countered by his re-election.

The problem with this “project fear” is that it is utterly incoherent as a description and utterly implausible as a prescription. It also entirely omitted the damage done by Brexit, the biggest self-inflicted threat to Britain. The “project fear” of 2016 turned out to be entirely accurate in terms of Brexit’s threat to our international trade and national prosperity.

It is obviously incoherent to equate the invasion of Europe by Vladimir Putin’s Russia with domestic arguments about free speech and independence for Scotland. The first is an existential threat to our democratic civilisation. The second are examples of the working of that very democracy we are seeking to secure against invasion and destabilisation by Russia—and China. And anyway, the threat of Scottish independence isn’t very real for the foreseeable future.

As for the idea that Labour is a threat in any of these areas, this is implausible given that Labour has broadly the same policies as the Tories on defence and security, including a commitment to increase defence spending, but not just yet. On the economy and Brexit, Labour has the advantage of not being responsible for the self-inflicted catastrophes of the past 14 years, including austerity and Liz Truss, which ought to give it more self-confidence in addressing the Tory legacy—even where its existing policies are cautious.

Sunak might have done better to focus on the foreign state security threats—Russia and China—which are undoubtedly worthy of “project fear”. But the problem here is that, while his government has been commendably robust on Ukraine, it is indecisive in respect of China, where Sunak appears to be leaving it to the next government to decide whether to follow Biden and the US into a serious trade war with the Beijing regime.

On the very day of Sunak’s speech, Biden imposed a 100 per cent tariff on Chinese cars, among a package of tariff and trade measures explicitly designed to weaken China. Our policy will probably end up splitting the difference between that of the EU and the US, but with our voice muted in its formulation thanks to Brexit and our self-imposed economic isolation.

Even on Ukraine and Russia, Sunak could and should have done far more to forge a common front with France and Germany. In the process, we might have strengthened Europe’s determination to resist Putin, in place of the half-measures and talk of negotiations which will never work with the Russian dictator.

As for the economic threats facing Britain, they are all too real and perilous. But it is farcical for Sunak to present himself as the answer to problems of his own creation, particularly Brexit. There has to be a change of government before there is any chance of recognising the elephant that will dominate the Cabinet room for years to come.