Rishi Sunak and Dakota Johnson have something in common. Bleak desperation

Overlong and stuffed with unsavoury characters: is it a Marvel film or the Conservatives’ reign in Westminster?

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak says the Conservatives can offer a 'secure future' to voters. But are his own days numbered? Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

“Elections are about the future” is one of those truisms that seems uncontroversial, except perhaps to journalists trapped in giant count-centre boxes across Ireland where the very concept of a future, of time itself, has been suspended in a limbo of plastic chairs and regret.

Across the water, where electoral fortunes are on track to prove apocalyptic for the Conservatives in a manner that, for good or ill, won’t take days of crisp-based diets to ascertain, “this election is about the future” has become the halfhearted mantra of halfhearted prime minister Rishi Sunak, a man who speaks with all the energy of someone who knows the moving vans are revving up their engines and it’s too late to stop them now.

Still, he rolls out a smattering of future-talk each time he steps down from his helicopter armed with gaffes. His spin-doctors, he remembers, have told him that elections are about the future, so he gives the line a whirl, making it his stock response to pointed questions about the past.

Sunak’s pause-laden, cheerily glazed media performances, a primer on how to lack conviction, remind me of Johnson – not the repulsive, dead-eyed bluster of Boris Johnson, but the bleak, smiling desperation of Dakota Johnson.


Sent out to promote Marvel nadir Madame Web earlier this year in the full awareness that it was terrible, the actor could scarcely bring herself to sell the film, opting instead to scatter-bomb derision, often to the delight of interviewers who knew they were banking press-tour gold. It did not make the Sony-released film’s box office any less of a disaster.

Sent out to promote Madame Web earlier this year in the full awareness that it was terrible, Dakota Johnson could scarcely bring herself to sell the film

Overlong, stuffed with unsavoury characters and testing the patience of its loyal base, the Conservatives’ reign in Westminster bears some similarities to recent Marvel and Marvel-adjacent output, and if that seems like a facile comparison, unfair to Marvel, that’s because it is.

Underlining this, Boris Johnson got there first, claiming in 2019 that the UK’s torturous effort to agree a Brexit deal with Brussels was akin to the Incredible Hulk breaking free of his manacles – a remark that drew a rebuttal from Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo, who tweeted that Johnson had forgotten how the green-tinged one “only fights for the good of the whole”.

But the Tory leader ghost who haunts Sunak most is not Hulk-slandering Johnson. It’s the predecessor he let deputise for him in Normandy last week. “I was the future once,” was how David Cameron concluded his final House of Commons speech as prime minister in July 2016, echoing his “he was the future once” jibe about Tony Blair 11 years earlier.

And that’s the trouble, really. Sunak has never been the future. He has only ever been the caretaker manager of a club bound for relegation. If he was a Marvel character, the internet would dub him “loser-coded”. Now pundits agree he is “broken”, while the audience at Sky’s leaders’ event on Wednesday ominously opted for pity laughter.

In some struggling sectors, the phrase “survive till 2025″ is doing the grim rounds. For Sunak, surviving another three weeks is starting to seem like a tall order. Sure, at the end of it he’ll get to mainline Haribo in Silicon Valley if he wants, but the campaign must already feel like an eternity, a sort of Midlands-North-West experience only with a more certain outcome.

I wonder if skipping the end of commemorations to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day – disrespecting the past, the British electorate say, when polled – would be less of a problem if only voters could have faith that he wouldn’t mess up the next 80 seconds. It was only about 30 seconds into his big election announcement, after all, before raindrops were visibly decorating his suit.

The battle-bus trundles on, with the Conservatives doubling down on their only real damage-limitation strategy: scare tactics concerning Labour’s tax plans. It’s the better-the-devil-you-know pitch at its most wretched, and maybe – just maybe – there is still time for it to stick in patches. Some voters believe what they want to believe.

But when the Conservative manifesto declares the party will deliver a “secure future”, that alone is a giveaway. Forget having a bright future, “secure” is now the best it can do.

You can see why communications consultants are fond of the idea that elections are about the future. Until recently, it was accepted thinking that we all had one. But, for a party in power, the limits to the premise are never more obvious than they are once we reach the jet-lagged postscript to a long-haul political cycle.

This is where the Conservative non-campaign – with its flagship policies on national service, pension promises and various bids to reverse time – becomes a cautionary tale. Fine Gael has been in Government for almost as long as the Tories. Fianna Fáil hasn’t, but it feels like it has. The decent local election performances of both parties are not a guarantor of future results.

Some catastrophes are more acute in Britain – what was Brexit if not the selling of young people’s future? But others, from perennially unaffordable housing to perilously strained health services to unsettling complacency about climate change, have clear Irish parallels. The lesson of Sunak is that it’s no use constantly mentioning the future if you have nothing to offer the voters who will live it and shape it.

Chronic hopelessness is wearying in imperceptible ways. It makes actions less predictable, it renders trust elusive and it leaves fractured relationships difficult to repair. It doesn’t make people stupid or forgetful. Voting for the future does not, or should not, mean losing the thread of the past.