Election Countdown

Weakness is Rishi Sunak’s biggest problem

The prime minister urgently needs to take some risks to convince voters he’s strong enough to tackle the big issues

May 20, 2024
A majority of voters think Sunak is weak. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
A majority of voters think Sunak is weak. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

An odd thing happened on the way to this blog.

We know that Rishi Sunak’s poll ratings are terrible. Voters think he is not up to the job. I decided to delve further into his unpopularity, and thought I knew what I would find. Each week, YouGov asks a battery of political questions, separately from its polls for the Times. It’s an automated process, with a rotating menu of questions. Results appear on YouGov’s website but tend to pass unnoticed. I was sure they would confirm that Sunak’s biggest challenge is to cast off his reputation for incompetence.

I was wrong. When I looked at recent YouGov figures I found that, yes, that is a problem for the prime minister: witness the saga of flights to Rwanda. But incompetence is not his biggest problem. What is dragging Sunak down most is that even more voters say he is weak. In particular, this is the damning verdict of the voters that he badly needs to win back: those who backed Boris Johnson in 2019 but are now unhappy with the government.  

It’s worth stressing that this is not a case of cherry-picking results to prove a point. YouGov regularly tests five attributes. Here is how last-time Tory voters currently judge Sunak on all of them:

Likeable 45 per cent; dislikeable 34 per cent; net rating plus 11

Competent 46 per cent; incompetent 36 per cent; net rating plus 10

Trustworthy 38 per cent; untrustworthy 37 per cent; net rating plus 1

Decisive 36 per cent; indecisive 51 per cent; net rating minus 15

Strong 25 per cent; weak 55 per cent; net rating minus 30 

None of these ratings are great. In every case fewer than half of those who voted Conservative in 2019 give a positive verdict. But only one in four of them say Sunak is strong. This is far less than for any other attribute. If ever a poll crackled with the sound of doom, this is it.

However, to report these figures is one thing; to explain them another. What is going on? Here are two clues.

First, Sunak’s reputation for strength peaked in April last year, when his net rating among Tory voters was plus 12 (strong 44 per cent, weak 32 per cent). This followed a period of positive stories. One was an optimistic budget that extended subsidies for domestic fuel bills, promised a return to low inflation and future economic growth, and offered free childcare for all one- and two-year-olds. Another sign of a brighter future was the “Windsor Framework” agreement between Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, to smooth the bumpy path of post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland. Sunak also negotiated a deal with France’s President Macron designed to stop boats carrying asylum seekers across the Channel. Less than six months into his job, the prime minister was beginning to display not just competence, but the strength of character to achieve results.

Since then, the cheer has gone. The tax burden remains on a sharp upward trend. The economy has stuttered. The costs of Brexit have risen, while the early signs of improving UK-EU relations have evaporated. Persistent strikes have hit trains and hospitals. The boats continue to cross the Channel. We should not be surprised that Sunak’s reputation has suffered.

The second clue flows from all this. People who voted Tory in 2019 give the government a mixed verdict. Most think it is doing well on inflation, unemployment and terrorism. They are evenly divided on defence, education and the economy generally.  Now we come to the bad news. The verdict is poor on Brexit, taxation and transport—and awful on housing, crime, the NHS and immigration. It’s unsurprising that 86 per cent of the general public think the government is handling immigration badly. What is striking is that the figure for Tory voters is also 86 per cent.

The lesson from these findings is brutal. Millions of voters that Sunak needs to win back think he is not strong enough to stop the boats, end long hospital waiting lists, build more homes or keep our streets safe. This may be unfair. We cannot be sure that any other Conservative leader would have done any better. Sadly, politics is not always fair. Perception is all.

Can the prime minister do anything to climb out of the hole he is in? Two things might help, at least a bit. The first is for his Rwanda policy to work. It won’t be enough just to get the flights going. The number of boats crossing the Channel must fall so sharply that they no longer make news and voters think the crisis is over. 

Secondly, Sunak needs at least one moment when Tory voters sit up and say, “my goodness, I had no idea he could be that strong.” The occasion for this could be a decisive move on something that has not featured in this blog so far: the disarray within the Conservative party. 

So far Sunak has sidestepped this issue, pretending that all is well when it is plainly not. Sometimes it is better to pick a fight than preside over the fiction of unity. The challenges to Sunak’s authority come mainly from MPs on the right. He needs to take them on. The nearest he has come to this is his bill to outlaw the sale of tobacco to anyone born in or after 2009. This took political courage. Even though most voters support the plan, the Tory right hates it. 

Sunak now needs to kick up a bigger fuss inside his party. Accept EU rules in order to boost trade across the Channel and kick-start faster growth? Insist on abiding by the European Convention on Human Rights? Nationalise Thames Water without compensation? Force recalcitrant councils to build more homes? Rule out tax cuts until nobody is kept waiting long for a hospital operation, mental health treatment or a place in a care home? Ban new licences to drill for North Sea oil or gas? Sack ministers who are “on manoeuvres”? 

Sunak has plenty of choices. All are politically risky, and that’s the point. He needs to be seen to take some risks and come out on top. Just now, this is his best, and possibly only, way to show his MPs that he is in charge, and disgruntled voters that he is not so weak after all.