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by Kirsteen Paterson
29 October 2023
Election Ready: Has Rishi Sunak won the public round?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

Election Ready: Has Rishi Sunak won the public round?

Celebrating one year of Rishi Sunak’s premiership, a video about his successes was posted on his official social media account. It came back down as quickly as it went up after viewers noticed the word “achievements” had been spelled wrongly.

Sunak may wish to break from the legacy of PMs past – the work of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson continues to cause political headaches – but the ironic gaffe was reminiscent of the word problems suffered by Theresa May when the letters of her conference slogan, “building a country that works for everyone”, began to drop off the wall behind her during her conference speech in 2017.

Supporters describe Sunak as a ‘details man’, but the schoolboy-level spelling error suggests he’s not entirely over all the finer points at a time when he is struggling to make his message stick.

And although he’s not under the same pressures as May was back then – she had Boris Johnson in front of her, while he’s now in Sunak’s rear view – he faces some similar questions about impact, popularity and whether or not he is a leader to believe in.

Sunak came to office promising to “place stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda” but opinion polling by YouGov reveals a net satisfaction rating of –37 and a public that sees him as less capable of running the UK than Keir Starmer. The margin between them may be just four per cent, but a year out from the general election, voter attitudes are beginning to harden and there is significant doubt over whether Sunak can lead his party into anything other than defeat in 2024-25.

In January, aides aimed to reduce Labour’s lead to 10 points within a year, but the gap is now at 20 points. Pollster Sir John Curtice has said the Conservative Party “faces the serious prospect of losing the next general election heavily, and maybe even more heavily than they did in 1997” when Tony Blair’s New Labour swept in.

But Sunak is, of course, a man who has turned defeat into success – losing the Conservative Party leadership race to Liz Truss one month then walking into her job the next after she crashed out in ignominy after a short run that caused a lasting impact on the public finances.

As Truss stood down, Penny Mordaunt stood up to fight, then caved when she was unable to find enough supporters to stand up for her before the nominations deadline. And so, as the only candidate standing, Sunak, the ex-chancellor who’d been fined for a partygate breach, walked into Number 10 with an economy to rescue, a government to run and a point to prove. “Some mistakes were made,” he told the Commons in his first speech as PM. “Not borne of ill-will or bad intentions – quite the opposite, in fact – but mistakes, nonetheless. And I have been elected as leader of my party and your prime minister, in part, to fix them.”

But a run of by-election losses suggests Sunak has a lot more fixing to do if he wants to keep his party in power. Inflation may have dropped from its 11.1 per cent high of last October, but at 6.7 per cent in September, annual UK consumer prices index inflation was almost 3.5 times the two per cent target set by the Treasury for the Bank of England, and the worst rate in the G7.

That’s causing problems across the economy and giving opponents a point of attack, the barbs sharpened by the estimated £730m wealth Sunak shares with his wife, Akshata Murty, and his sky-high air travel bill. That includes £500m-worth of taxpayer-funded flights taken within less than a fortnight.

At the Labour Party conference, Starmer described Sunak as “a man who keeps a close watch on the cost-of-living crisis – from the vantage point of his helicopter”. SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, meanwhile, tells voters if they are “skint, scunnered and Scottish” they should “blame the Tories” and calls Sunak “the Tory billionaire of last resort”.

In his speech to the recent SNP conference, Flynn focused on the cost-of-living crisis, telling delegates it was “made in Westminster” and making that his rallying cry ahead of the general election campaign. “Let’s make sure we keep remembering what they have done, the price people have paid because of it, and let’s make sure that they get stuffed at the next general election here in Scotland once again.”

That kind of messaging failed to save the SNP from a by-election drubbing in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. The seat has swung between that party and Labour at every election since its creation in 2005, but that didn’t take the sting out of the 24 per cent shift achieved by Starmer’s candidate Michael Shanks. 

Starmer is increasingly viewed as a prime minister in-waiting, and while Sunak’s side had little chance of victory in Rutherglen, it polled more poorly than had been anticipated, with candidate Thomas Kerr, a well-known councillor in neighbouring Glasgow, losing his deposit.

The Scottish Conservatives were diminished with the drop to third party at the last Scottish Parliament election and appear further so against a running backdrop of devolution dramas that have seen Tory leaders in London and SNP chiefs in Edinburgh butt heads on where power lies over matters as diverse as bottle recycling, transgender recognition reform and controls over referendums.

When the UK Government has laid down its roadblocks, it has often been Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, not Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has done the heavy lifting. It was the Dumfries and Galloway MP who issued the Section 35 Order which blocked the Gender Recognition Reform Bill from becoming law. It was Jack at the front again for the Deposit Return Scheme. And when Supreme Court justices threw out the Scottish Government’s attempt to determine that it could hold an advisory vote on the constitution without the PM’s agreement, it was Jack’s name on the UK Government’s statement.

That’s despite the political win Sunak had scored by default, the ruling giving him protection that his predecessors hadn’t had. Because while none of the Tory top brass had wanted to be the prime minister in place for the break-up of Britain, it was Sunak who was in the chair when the court ended Nicola Sturgeon’s indyref2 plan. 

When he has stepped forward to speak to Scotland, as when he went to St Fergus in Aberdeenshire to announce plans for major new North Sea activity, Sunak has arguably failed to connect with voters. Opinion polling certainly suggests that the PM has been unable to win round the electorate north of the border. A total of 23 per cent of people had a “very” or “somewhat” favourable view of him in January, according to work by YouGov, while 63 per cent held a “somewhat unfavourable” or “very unfavourable” view and 13 per cent didn’t know. Eight months later, the figures were little changed, with polling by Opinium in mid-September now showing 24 per cent of respondents had a favourable view of Sunak, 65 per cent held an unfavourable view and 11 per cent were uncertain.

Observers say it’s not just in Scotland that Sunak has failed to win hearts and minds, but across the UK as a whole. “His kind of personal and policy brand is just a bit meh,” according to Francis Elliot, editor of The House magazine. “I think that reflects in his polling. He’s not despised but he’s not really liked or rated.”

A word cloud produced for the More in Common think tank gives some insight into how the electorate sees Sunak, and that view is pretty one-dimensional. While some people told the organisation they associate him with “fairness”, “equality” and “stability”, the vast majority chose the words “rich people”, followed by “money”. Other answers were “greed”, “elite”, “wealth” and “himself”.

The “toxic legacy of what he inherited” meant Sunak “missed his moment to introduce himself to the British public,” according to Elliot, who rates his party management as “very weak” and even “quite cowardly at times”. Elliot said Johnson crony Nadine Dorries should have been sacked after she announced she would step down, then clung on amid outcry from constituents, and questions whether Sunak has “driven up standards of ethics in government”. “He’s not quite as bad as his predecessor, but that’s not saying much on that front.”

After entering office on a promise of serious government, Sunak has watered down net-zero policies, overseen the imposition of tough new limits on asylum seekers and, according to his Tory party conference speech, scrapped a seven-bin requirement for householders and axed a tax on meat. The PM couldn’t pinpoint where those policy proposals had come from, with Tory MP Simon Clarke and peer Lord Goldsmith saying they didn’t exist, but Sunak told Radio 4’s Today programme there was “a range of different things that have been proposed by different people”. “He seemed to be cancelling a set of policies that the government hadn’t announced which is, I suppose, a political technique,” commented Climate Change Committee chief executive Chris Stark.

The conference was supposed to be a moment of reset for the party but left some former government ministers shaking their heads. Ex-UK education secretary Justine Greening said the reset had “badly failed” and that in “adopting the hard right’s rhetoric” Sunak has “ended up with their results too – rejection by a broader country”. “Sunak channelled Margaret Thatcher at conference, but perhaps a ‘full Major’ strategy is his only hope,” she wrote in the Guardian. “In other words, attempting to turn what looks like a repeat of the 1997 landslide loss into John Major’s narrow victory in 1992.”

That election ended with little change in Scotland. The Tories did not suffer the losses to Labour that had been predicted and it would take another five years for those to materialise. Speaking in Manchester, Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross was bullish about his party’s 2024 prospects, saying that with Nicola Sturgeon gone from the SNP leadership “we can deal a fatal blow to the campaign for independence”. “We can ensure the nationalists fall short again and put Humza Yousaf’s government on notice,” he said.

The words came before the SNP agreed its new independence strategy in Aberdeen. If it wins “a majority of the seats” in Scotland at the general election, the Scottish Government will seek to “begin immediate negotiations with the UK Government to give democratic effect to Scotland becoming an independent country”. And if Westminster refuses to start talking, then “consideration should be given to fighting the next Scottish Parliament election in 2026 as a de facto referendum” in which a majority for the SNP “and any other party with which we have reached a pro-independence agreement” will then be taken as a mandate to negotiate an end to the union.

At the Labour conference in Liverpool, the party’s Scottish leader Anas Sarwar, fresh from Rutherglen, declared that “no SNP MP can sit safely”, telling Yousaf: “We can beat you across Scotland.” Earlier this year, polling suggested Labour would be the big beneficiaries of a 23-seat loss for Yousaf’s party at the next general election.

Other predictions have been more positive to the SNP, but still point to a difficult contest. Current forecasting by Electoral Calculus puts the party on course for 32 MPs, 16 shy of its current total. The claim is based on a projected vote share of 36.7 per cent, dropping from 45 per cent. Would such a result be enough to convince the next prime minister to prepare for the end of the Union? It is “pie in the sky stuff”, according to STV’s Bernard Ponsonby, and Westminster will “simply ignore” the result “as it has done in the past”.

Sunak, then, may be little troubled by these rebellious Scots. But any shift from the SNP to Labour as part of a UK-wide uplift for Starmer does pose a more urgent problem. The tankings taken by the Tories in the Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire by-elections “represent one of the worst by-election nights that any government has had to endure,” Curtice has said, and “the fact Labour are now matching what the party achieved in by-elections 30 years ago strongly corroborates the message at the polls: that the Conservatives are in deep electoral trouble”.

“It looks as though Rishi Sunak will have to achieve what John Major proved unable to deliver before 1997 – a dramatic reversal of a public mood that is inclined to turf the Conservatives out out of office. He now knows that will not be easy.”

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