The idea of bringing back national service has been kicking around British politics for about five times longer than the policy itself lasted. Mandatory conscription was introduced by the Attlee government and dismantled gradually from 1957 to 1963. Those old enough to have experienced it will now be in their mid-80s. Following Rishi Sunak’s announcement last night, the Tories might introduce it to a new generation.

When voters see you as the political wing of the OAPs, this is how national service will be viewed

Though the PM’s main attack line on Starmer is his lack of plan, the Conservative party’s national service suggestion is itself quite vague. Sunak is suggesting that a Royal Commission will flesh out the policy, a classical political move to gloss over the details of a flashy announcement. A germ of an idea is there though. Mandatory service for all 18-year-olds is being proposed, with either a year in the military or 25 days volunteering in some sort of community service.

The political thinking here is straightforward. The idea of national service has remained popular, especially with those who never had to do it themselves. Polling over the years suggests around 40 per cent of the country might support it. The support is usually strongest among the sort of retirees where the Tories find their base, and where they see this election as a battle with Reform. Announcing this now is a clear signal that this is the Tory strategy for the next six weeks.

Individually popular policies, however, make a poor election campaign. When electing a government people tend to think in the round. Being stopped by a pollster and asked if something is a good idea is different from voting for it. An election focuses minds on the broader context, not just a grab-bag idea. Indeed, this was the great downfall of the Corbynites – individual policies had appeal, but presented together by a polarising politician they added up to a losing platform.

This is partly because, like Brexit, even when something is popular, people have different ideas about the implementation. The unfurnished details of Sunak’s conscription plan could detract from its popularity. Quite rightly we might wonder how the forces would cope with an annual intake equivalent to about 10 per cent of its total strength. Part of the reason the first round of national service was dismantled was that the army didn’t want to spend time training fresh troops who’d disappear after a year. It’s hard to see how today’s smaller, more technically complex forces would deal with the same challenge.

The same issue is true of the public services. Volunteering is a great thing which many charities and organisations relish. Finding jobs for a few enthusiasts is very different though from having to deal with those press-ganged into being there. In the NHS and other organisations, scarce resources would have to be used to manage bored and recalcitrant recruits. It opens the door for Labour attacks too on how the Tory government has already impacted the armed forces and public services.

In a broader campaign, there are other pitfalls too. While national service might bring back some Reform voters to the Tory fold, elsewhere it will push them away. Part of the problem the Tories have is that they are now increasingly seen as the party of the old. Trapped in a symbiotic, perhaps even parasitic, relationship with voters over 60, the party pitches more policies at retirees while becoming more dependent on their votes. National service feels like something in this vein.

Understandably, enthusiasm for the idea wanes the closer you are in age to the people who have to do it. The Tories are already in an existential struggle with these groups. In 1997, more than a quarter of under-24s voted Tory, even when the party faced a huge defeat. On the latest polling support from that age group is around 7 per cent. Indeed, the party is doing less well with 50- to 64-year-olds than it did in 1997. Taken alongside other policy areas – the triple lock, house prices, and Brexit – the Tory party looks like an organisation that has lost touch with the young. This will skew how the national service gambit is seen.

Perceptions around policy matters. On the NHS, say, the public will think kindlier of a Labour reform package than a Tory one, even if it did the same thing. When voters see you as the political wing of the OAPs, this is how national service will be viewed. As much as you try to dress it as a way for young people to gain skills, or to bolster the armed forces in an uncertain world, for many it will just be seen as a cruel way of trying to appeal to retirees. This could further motivate the younger vote against the Tories, sending up turnout and worsening their defeat. It will also make it harder to win those voters back in future elections.

For much of Sunak’s term as PM, we have seen this approach to policy. Things are thrown out in isolation – free chess boards, compulsory maths to the age of 18 – that perhaps might be popular, yet come together to form an unconvincing whole. A half-formed national service plan fits this mould, and while it might fire up a few older voters, it feels unlikely to greatly swing the political dial.

The real issue this campaign has is that after 14 years, the Tory party feels tired and chaotic. In many quarters it was viewed as incompetent and tetchy. Policies that poll well without the Tories attached will look very different through this lens. National service is one of those policies – at best it might shore up the core vote, but it is far from election-winning. Instead, it looks like a desperate move from a party struggling to think of things to offer.

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