Rishi Sunak’s downward spiral

Sunak bristles at the insinuation he is out of touch with reality

Pollsters see British governments come and go—usually into oblivion. YouGov’s chief polling researcher, Anthony Wells, has analysed several governments, prime ministers and opposition leaders—also known as restless prime ministers-in-waiting. He says Rishi Sunak’s government is the most “exhausted” he has seen in 25 years. Asked for his views for a 4,000-word article on whether Sunak could win the next election, Wells replied: “What are you going to say in the other 3,999?”

Sunak’s main problem is his inheritance—his Tory partymen, policies and predecessors. The scandals, economic meltdowns, contradictory demands, infighting and relentless sniping have created a toxic gloom-and-doom atmosphere. People are frustrated. Crumbling concrete roofs falling on schoolchildren’s heads, collapsing air traffic control system, never-ending strikes, lengthening queues for health care, understaffed jails—all symbolise a Tory administration in decay.

Sunak is frustrated because no one gives him credit for negotiating international disputes, resetting ties with the EU and US, and curtailing government spending. He prides himself as a smart, tech-savvy, problem-solving pragmatist. He had no qualms about abandoning Britian’s moral high ground by backtracking on climate commitments: issuing new fossil drilling licenses and extending sales of diesel and petrol cars. His reason: “to reduce costs for hard-pressed British families”. Experts say households fare better with targeted assistance.

Imaging: Bhaskaran Imaging: Bhaskaran

Critics argue Sunak’s climate U-turns are double-barrelled guns aiming to hijack opposition Labour’s poorer votebanks, while appeasing the hardline Brexiteer rump in his Conservative Party—white, male climate-deniers, aged 65 and above. Tory strategist Andrew Cooper despairs that his Party is “doubling down on a shrinking demographic that’s diminishing one funeral at a time.” But Sunak’s climate reversals ignited a civil war between Tory young and old, provoked a backlash from businesses who said such flipflops harm British economy and galvanised the opposition.

Sunak’s polit­ical goal is to paint oppos­i­tion Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer as an “eco-zealot” insensitive to cash-strapped house­holds. Starmer, who the public see as “strong, likeable, decisive and competent”, currently has a 20-point lead over Sunak. One-third of Britons say he looks like a PM-in-waiting. Starmer ridicules Sunak’s dandyism—cutting alcohol duty on champagne, flying around in helicopters and flaunting branded luxury accessories from 10,000 slippers to 20,000 travel coffee mugs.

Sunak bristles at the insinuation he is out of touch with reality. But he opts to tackle his tasks with data and detailed discussions. If there is anything called “Sunakism”, it is his passion for using technology to boost economic growth and to create a world-class education system. He loftily promises to “reimagine our approach to numeracy”. Most Britons can’t understand what he is talking about. Put simply, he wants to improve math teaching. Important, but unlikely to set voters’ imagination on fire.

The million-pound question is: can Sunak swing the fifth consecutive Tory election victory, the last being a landslide delivered by Boris Johnson. Polls are a year away, but most Tories dread defeat because the public have tuned out. Partly due to incumbency, but also voters are exhausted by rising mortgages, falling living standards and deteriorating public services. Sunak is seen as a manager, not a leader; an investment banker, not a politician. Says Wells, “Oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them.” At the upcoming Tory conference in Manchester, the last before the general election, Sunak will pitch high. His foes will snitch low. Waiting in the wings is rival Johnson, who has a new column in the tabloid Daily Mail. He is armed, not with a sword, but with a mighty, mocking pen.