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How a bit of Yorkshire plain speaking helped Rishi Sunak over the line - Alex Bigham

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Yorkshire Post.


You should never write anyone off in politics. A bit like Bill Clinton in 1992, the tale of the recent Tory leadership election was the tale of two ‘Comeback Kids’ in Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak.


Sunak’s ascendancy to the throne after his comprehensive defeat to Liz Truss just two months ago is remarkable, and while most people will ascribe it to his correct prediction about the disaster of Liz Truss’s mini-budget, it also owes something to a small, slightly obscure part of the brain.


Before I get to that, it’s worth noting how many Tory MPs across Yorkshire have been feeling nervous about their futures. Recent polling by Survation showed several would lose their seats if an election was held today, with constituencies such as Skipton & Ripon, Thirsk & Malton and York Outer going Labour for the first time.


The polls under Liz Truss were so dreadful for the Tories that even Sunak, who has the 12th biggest Tory majority in the country, was predicted to lose his Richmond seat to Labour. That’s pretty unlikely to happen in a General Election given his appeal appears to be strong in Yorkshire.

A separate poll, published on the day of Liz Truss’s resignation, showed that Sunak was seen as one of the most effective communicators amongst leading Tory MPs. Commissioned by The Story Network, a new communications firm, with fieldwork by Kantar Profiles, it blew apart the myth that the former Chancellor is only popular with southern, metropolitan voters.


While the two contenders were virtually neck and neck nationwide (22% for Boris Johnson versus 21% for Rishi Sunak) this hid major regional differences. Rishi Sunak was well ahead of his closest rival Boris Johnson in the North, the location of many of the original ‘Red Wall’ seats.


In the North, Rishi Sunak had a substantial lead over his main potential rival, 10 points ahead in the North East, Yorkshire & Humberside, 3 points ahead in the North West, while North of the border in Scotland, Sunak was some 21 points ahead of Boris Johnson.


Other possible leadership candidates scored poorly with Penny Mordaunt on just 6%.


Rishi Sunak may be behind in the polls against Labour, but his fortunes have turned around since losing to Liz Truss. How did he manage it? Well, by telling a better story than his rivals. A bit of Yorkshire plain speaking you might say.


Simon Sinek, an American author, has pointed out how telling stories is the most effective way to build a sense of loyalty to brands and even politicians. A collection of cells in the brain, known as the amygdala, plays an important role in our decision making processes, including how we process emotions and memories.


The most effective communicators and brands engage on an emotional level - telling a story that we can engage with, by asking the question ‘why’?. It’s why companies such as Apple remain so successful - they communicate why they do what they do (making life easier by making technology simpler) rather than just what they do (making computers and smartphones etc).


Rishi’s story: that he opposes unfunded tax cuts because they would lead to economic disaster wasn’t believed during the first leadership campaign, but has been proven beyond a doubt by the unfurling of the mini-budget.


With Liz Truss’s Thatcherite story having been blown apart by the collapse of the pound, Rishi Sunak can now tell a much more convincing narrative about the importance of stability, economic planning and responsible leadership.


The importance of story-telling in politics or campaigning is not new of course.


The Brexit campaign manifested this profoundly. The stories the Leave campaign promoted - a fear of Turkish immigration; of jobs under threat; an over-stretched NHS; and about being in control of our future - played out in a way that the Remain campaigns' academic arguments about economic strength, global influence and effective trade struggled to engage.


You can even communicate effectively in the middle of a crisis. Tony Blair’s election victory in 2005 in the aftermath of an unpopular war was helped by the fact the British public accepted the narrative that the country needed to move ‘forward not back’.


Humans have told stories, and these echo through the ages. You may never have read the parables of the New Testament or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but the moral concepts of the good samaritan and the unintended consequences of creating a monster are ingrained in your world-view.


Lincoln’s victory as the first Republican to seize the White House in 1860 came despite a stance on slavery so unpopular in the South he wasn’t even on the ballot in many states. It’s hard to think of a better story-teller in the last 200 years of political leaders.


Amongst Conservatives contenders, Rishi Sunak’s story is convincing voters in Yorkshire, and possibly elsewhere.


Of course, he still trails well behind Labour’s Keir Starmer. The polls show even if he was in place, Labour still is ahead on general voting intention and ‘who makes the best PM’.


But he at least has some basis to rebuild the Tories’ shattered brand.


Alex Bigham is a former political adviser in Westminster and the co-founder of The Story Network, a new communications firm.


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