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by Kirsteen Paterson
24 April 2024
Shelf Life: Rishi Sunak gets hammered by the polls

Does Rishi Sunak have the skills to put up a shelf? Image: Alamy

Shelf Life: Rishi Sunak gets hammered by the polls

According to polling, voters wouldn’t trust Rishi Sunak even to put up a shelf.

The prime minister is trying to build momentum after a series of bruising polls and punishing by-election losses – not to mention honeytrap sexting scams and defections to Reform UK. But if this set of results is anything to go by, he might be better shelving his ambitions. 

Just 13 per cent think he’d be up to wielding a spirit level and rawlplugs, versus 47 per cent for Keir “my dad was a toolmaker” Starmer. 

Do we think Sunak has ever put up a shelf himself? Surely the income from his wife Akshata Murty’s Infosys shares would pay for a decent tradesman or 12. And anyway, he’s got his white trainers to clean. 

Sunak’s boxfresh Adidas Sambas were on show during an interview and any expectation that it would be a sartorial step in the right direction for the under-pressure leader was quickly dispelled by wails from devotees of the cult gutty. Reports that former Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who has long modelled the make, had to be revived with smelling salts have yet to be confirmed.

Apologising for making the trainers uncool, Sunak insisted he had been wearing the £90 runners “for many, many years”. But the ‘everyman’ shtick hasn’t stuck and now polling from JL Partners says he’s second choice to Starmer on a range of everyday activities from being in charge of a map on a road trip to holding a conversation in the pub.

As we’re en route to the general election now – though how close we actually are to the big day is currently for Sunak to know and everyone else to find out – this stuff, trite as it is, matters. It’s an indication of likeability and relatability. Starmer seems to be winning on those counts and it wouldn’t matter so much for the Conservatives if Labour weren’t also leading on voting intention, but we’ve all seen those figures. 

But there was some good news for Sunak in the poll – on who’d be best at holding a party, he was on level-pegging with Starmer; he edged it on who’d be better at solving an escape room; and he came seven per cent in front on negotiating a discount. 

It’s universally accepted that you have to play to your strengths, so it’s clear now what Conservative Party HQ has to do to get the voting public on side – get Sunak to organise a party (as long as it’s not the parliamentary party, which, according to a report by Holyrood’s sister title PoliticsHome, is becoming increasingly difficult for whips to manage), take him to an escape room and get him to haggle at the front counter. Providing he’s not wearing Adidas Sambas at the time, the election will be in the bag.

Sunak himself has said he was “intrigued and amused by the amount of focus” on his outfit. I’m not sure why, because politicians and their plimsolls have long been the subject of commentary. Like teachers, they’re not supposed to have civilian clothes. As far as the public is concerned, they eat, sleep and shower in a shirt and tie.

Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was amused by Sunak’s bafflement, tweeting out a cry-laughing emoji and telling Sunak “welcome to the everyday world of a woman in politics”.

And indeed, it’s an established, if unwelcome, reality that much of the focus on elected women is about their hair, clothes and shoes – who could forget the Daily Mail’s awful “Legs-it” headline against an image of Sturgeon and Theresa May in skirts?

I’m not sure if Sturgeon or May would be a dab hand at popping up a shelf either, but the spotlight shines less brightly on them now that they’re both out of leadership, with one preparing to leave parliament and the other awaiting the outcome of a police investigation.

But all the signs are that Sunak’s shelf life has expired.

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