Illustration by Bill McConkey

The petulant prime minister

Rishi Sunak is developing a reputation for being thin-skinned and tetchy. It’s no way to win round the country
January 22, 2024

When Rishi Sunak took over as prime minister, he was far more popular than his party. This offered a glimmer of hope to Tory strategists, who hoped to pit him in a presidential campaign against Keir Starmer, a leader less popular than his own party. Unfortunately for them, Sunak’s popularity cratered during 2023 and his brand is now just as disliked as the Conservative one.

This was always likely to happen. Sunak’s more positive approval ratings in late 2022 were largely because Labour and Liberal Democrat voters were relatively favourable towards him. At that point, he was best known for financial support handed out during the pandemic and he seemed like a relatively sober counterpoint to the excesses of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Over the past year or so, as he has espoused more traditionally Conservative policies and been pushed further to the right on issues such as immigration by disgruntled backbench MPs, this shine has worn off.

But he also hasn’t helped himself. No politician, however talented, would have found it easy to lead a fag-end government following a series of high-profile scandals and screw-ups, and with so many things going wrong in the country simultaneously. But Sunak has shown a remarkable naivety when it comes to political strategy, insofar as he has one at all. Aides have struggled to build any kind of narrative around the fairly arbitrary list of things that he is interested in, which is how we ended up with a highly unconvincing “I am the change” message at the Conservative party conference. That’s now been junked in favour of “stick with the plan”, but it’s not clear what plan he wants us to stick with.

Beyond the lack of strategy, Sunak has also been shown up by his inability to communicate. In interviews, he is unable to manage any spontaneity and just repeats lines robotically. He also has a tendency to get snippy with interviewers, as if it is beneath him to respond to such daft questions. By all accounts, he loves the bit of being prime minister where he gets to sit with his red box in the evening and work through papers, but far less so the bits that involve interacting with other people on camera.

All of this is a reminder that being a good politician is much harder than it looks. In the last 30 years, only two of the main party leaders, Tony Blair and David Cameron, have had sustained periods of net positive approval ratings with the pollster Ipsos. Regardless of what you think about their politics, they both have two key—and incredibly rare—skills: they can stick to a message while seeming to be having a fairly normal conversation; and they always look like they want to persuade the audience. This ability to understand the motivations of people who might disagree with your position is one reason why Cameron was able to present himself as a more centrist figure despite, in practice, having standard Conservative policy views. Sunak, by contrast, is always defending and boasting, never persuading.

As we head towards the sharp end of the election campaign, this could become a real problem for the Conservatives. We are unlikely to see a dramatic Theresa May-style fall from grace because Sunak is already so unpopular; he has less far to fall. But his weaknesses will militate against him being able to close the gap with Labour, even if many pundits still expect this to happen. I suspect there will, again, be televised prime ministerial debates, because Sunak will have to try everything and opposition leaders are typically more open to them. Starmer is by no means a great performer either; he also seems stilted, though is less easily riled. But Sunak managed to lose a debate to Liz Truss—in which he accurately predicted the failures of her policy programme—simply because he came across as arrogant and aggressive.

This problem is exacerbated by the lack of frontbench talent to provide support to Sunak and make the campaign seem like more a team effort. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is also deeply unpopular—and will, if he stands, be fighting a tough battle to hold his own constituency. James Cleverly, one of their better performers (though gaffe-prone), is discovering why Conservative home secretaries who don’t embrace populism struggle. Cameron has been diminished by the EU referendum and his post-prime ministerial career failures. Penny Mordaunt is the only one with any profile who doesn’t have dismal net approval ratings, and she too will be fighting to hold on to her own seat.

There is still a belief among Tory MPs that this might be “another 1992”, and that they can scrape a surprise victory, even though they are in a far worse place now polling-wise than they were 10 months before that election. But, back then, John Major had a plus 20 approval rating with Ipsos. Sunak’s is minus 48. Which is even worse than Major’s rating was 10 months before 1997.