In a political no man's land—Rishi Sunak. Credit: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Sunak paradox

A clash between the prime minister’s persona and beliefs creates a distinct challenge for Tory strategists
May 10, 2023

In April, Rishi Sunak told us that LinkedIn was one of his favourite social media platforms, ahead of a Q&A on that site. This is all too believable. He is imbued with the slightly manic earnestness so common on LinkedIn. It’s easy to imagine him writing a post about his early morning productivity routine, with a 5am alarm leading—via sessions of meditation and yoga—to a breakfast kale smoothie.

It’s also easy to imagine him having the political views of this archetype—an economic liberal keen on low taxes and low regulation for his tech start-up, yet broadly socially liberal. Probably a Remain voter who is relaxed about immigration and in favour of decriminalising cannabis. 

Except this is entirely at odds with everything Sunak says and does. Unlike Theresa May and Liz Truss, he backed Brexit in 2016 and, unlike Boris Johnson, he didn’t vacillate. Sunak has allied with Suella Braverman in attempts to deport asylum seekers regardless of their claims. He has announced a ban on laughing gas, against expert advice.

For some, it’s so hard to reconcile these views with Sunak’s persona that they assume he’s performing an act in a bid to hold on to power at any cost. But the evidence for this is sparse. Back in 2016 there was no obvious political benefit for an ambitious young MP in supporting Brexit, given the widespread assumption that Remain would win and the Cameron/Osborne show would continue for several more years at least. 

It is true that the obsessive focus on asylum seekers arriving in small boats could be cover for increasing the economic immigration necessary to keep the NHS and many private firms afloat. But there haven’t been any quiet briefings to moderate journalists suggesting differences of opinion with Braverman. By all accounts, Sunak has put significant amounts of time and energy into finding ways to “stop the boats” while staying just on the right side of the law. 

This speaks to a wider problem of marking out well-­spoken Oxbridge types as a “new elite” of woke liberals, which rather ignores the fact that someone with Sunak’s privately educated background is still more likely to have rightwing views than other graduates of the same generation.

In any case, the Sunak paradox has created a dilemma for Tory strategists. Sunak’s ratings, while not stellar, are better than Boris Johnson’s were. But as the newsletter Beyond The Topline has shown, Sunak’s support is very inefficient. Around a third of Remain voters have a favourable opinion of him, despite his policies being, in practice, to the right of Boris Johnson’s. But very few of these people are intending to vote Tory. Meanwhile, Leave voters are only marginally more favourable towards Sunak than they were towards Johnson after the Partygate scandal blew up.

This explains the socially conservative noises emerging from Number 10 in recent months, with culture war stories on heavy rotation in the Tory-friendly press. They are trying to reassure the more authoritarian-minded part of the 2019 voter coalition that they can trust Sunak. 

The policy most associated with Sunak is making maths compulsory to 18—not exactly textbook populism

It’s not really working. Labour’s poll lead has fallen a few points but remains comfortably in majority territory. Sunak’s ratings are only marginally below Keir Starmer’s, but the PM seems incapable of nudging Tory voting intention above a 30 per cent ceiling. However hard strategists push this socially conservative version of Sunak, what sticks in voters’ minds is the shiny technocrat, especially when his substantive policy achievements—such as the Windsor framework on post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland—fit squarely with that impression. One poll found that the policy the public most associate with Sunak is making maths compulsory to 18. Not exactly textbook populism. 

The risk for the Tories is that to change this impression of Sunak they would have to steer so hard to the right that they’d alienate mainstream voters who worry about crime and immigration but who are also made uneasy by the overt expressions of hostility associated with Braverman, one of the most unpopular politicians in Britain.

An alternative would be to play to Sunak’s perceived strengths as a dully competent and pragmatic manager, and try to switch some of those Remainers who voted for Cameron in 2015 back to the Tory column. But that ship has probably sailed. These voters may see something of themselves in Sunak, but they are not ready to forgive the carnage of the last few years. 

That leaves Sunak in an uneasy no man’s land, not hated but not trusted either. It also highlights the gap between the best short- and long-term strategies for the Tories. Right now they’d be better off with a leader who was popular among Leave voters—like Johnson before he blew up—even if they were loathed by Remainers. But in the longer term they will need to become palatable to the growing pool of younger liberals. If Sunak loses and the party wrongly concludes they need someone with a more authoritarian image, they could find themselves out of power for a long time.