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By Laura Kuenssberg
Presenter, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg

Click! That sound you hear is the core pieces of the election snapping into place. After this week, the questions our two big parties will separately pose are clear.

I’m not sure that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has much in common with a Hollywood star turned US presidential hopeful who, in the final week of the 1980 campaign, stared into the camera and said: “Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?” But the question Labour will now pose is very similar. It worked for Ronald Reagan – what will it do for Starmer?

Separately, you might have thought Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s claim of a “new economic moment” sounded like the name of an obscure indie band. But with inflation slowing, and hopes of an interest rate cut soon, the Tories are warming up to asking: “Are you better off than you were a few months ago?”

As the BBC’s Faisal Islam has explained, statements from the PM, the Governor of the Bank of England and the shadow chancellor have created chatter about “green shoots of recovery”. But will the public really feel it? Will voters be grateful to the government if they do feel more flush? And if the economy really is getting better, could that save the Tories from calamity?

Are voters really feeling it?

Prices are rising more slowly, as the government is eager to remind you. Pay packets have been growing, and the National Minimum Wage is going up again next week. A member of the government has suggested the cost of living crisis has ended – and there are signs that the economy is turning (or at least, that it’s stopped getting worse).

But given what’s happened in recent years – including the war in Ukraine and Liz Truss’ market meltdown – most voters aren’t suddenly going to feel like they have cash to spare.

One former minister tells me: “I don’t think people will feel materially better off by September and October” – when it’s likely the election will take place. Independent number crunchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) say most people will be worse off than they were in 2019, despite the tax cuts of the last few months. And there has been a real jump in the numbers of families living in hardship.

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Voters don’t say ‘thank you’

Can Sunak, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and others generate political credit for the modest improvements so far? Some of their colleagues in government aren’t so sure. One minister told me that when inflation was rising, Downing Street was saying: “‘Nothing to do with me, it’s the Bank of England, not my fault!’ Now it’s come down, it’s not down to them either, you can’t take the credit.”

Voters are rarely grateful – they want to know what politicians are going to do for them next, not say thank you for what has already happened. One senior Conservative tells me that “getting it right won’t make them love us”. Another Tory source asks: “Has anyone found evidence to suggest that if the economy in numbers terms is slightly ticking up, then that gains you some big electoral dividend?”

Another senior Conservative says history even suggests the opposite. In 1997, they say, the economy was booming under a Conservative government – but that meant people felt more comfortable taking a risk on Tony Blair’s Labour.

Watch: Sunak challenged on 2024 being ‘bounce back’ year

Rishi Sunak’s allies tell a different story. They believe that demonstrating the economy is on the mend is the absolute priority. The plan is to create a sense that a vote for Labour might put a fragile recovery at risk.

That’s why Labour is so paranoid about allowing any flicker of jeopardy about how they’d run the economy. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, pronounced this week that “stability is change” – in other words, having new people in charge, who aren’t endlessly locked in leadership dramas, would make the UK a better place to do business.

You might not get Labour MPs rushing to put that slogan on a leaflet – and Labour’s internal critics fear the leadership doesn’t have enough verve in its veins. But the view at the top is that Labour must been seen as being safe. “The public don’t look at Labour and think give us something exciting, they look at us and think, can we trust you to do it,” one source says.

On this week’s show are Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds

Paddy Harverson, a former adviser to the King and the Prince of Wales, will also join us
And the actors Brian Cox and Patrician Clarkson will talk about the West End return of Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Watch live on BBC One and iPlayer from 09:00 GMT on Sunday

Follow latest updates in text and video on the BBC News website from 08:30

There is something else going on though. When you talk to Tories about the economy, within 30 seconds the conversation often shifts to a general malaise, a discussion about how dire the situation is and, regularly, a sense of disappointment with Rishi Sunak’s Downing Street.

To be fair, backbenchers, and even politicians in government, love to bellyache. With many of them the subtext is clear: if only the leadership listened to me the world would be a better place. But the level of despair right now is obvious.

One minister said acidly of Rishi Sunak: “His competence masks his incompetence.” They said the PM struggles to make decisions, asks for endless amounts of detail before making a call, and doesn’t really have a clear vision of what he wants to do. “He’s rubbish,” they pronounce. Ouch!

Even a politician who is a friend of the PM told me that Number 10 sometimes “looks irrelevant”. People vote on “vibes”, not minor changes to the economy or “anodyne” policies that Sunak has put forward, they say – suggesting the “vibe” that the Tories are heading for defeat will be hard to budge.

Others are less harsh. One senior Conservative tells me speculation about a leadership in meltdown is “silly”. A senior minister suggests it’s much less about Sunak’s persona than the nightmare he inherited after the pandemic and the energy price shock.

“People are not in a mood to feel grateful,” they say. “They are very cross with Biden in the US even though the economy is roaring, they are very cross with Scholz in Germany. Incumbents are all getting it in the neck.” Sunak is “super intense”, but “the most productive prime minister we have ever had”, they say.

You heard from Rishi Sunak earlier in the week – and no doubt tomorrow in our studio we’ll hear the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, trying to persuade you that things really are getting better. But as things stand, it is a political leap to imagine that an ugly economic picture becoming a touch more attractive can overcome all the baggage and bad tempers of the last few years.

A mildly improving economy is not a political strategy or vision on its own. To update another famous American political adage: maybe it’s “stupid” to suggest it’s just the economy after all.

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