A (pre-emptive) post-mortem on Sunak’s time as Prime Minister
The political landscape in the UK presents a challenging scene for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as we enter 2024. With his popularity having plummeted to a dismal net favourability score of -49, a figure reminiscent of Boris Johnson's final days in office, Sunak faces an uphill battle. The Labour Party’s resurgence threatens to chip away at the Conservative Party’s hold over the electorate. The outlook for Sunak seems bleak, underscored by three pivotal issues: his failure to fulfil key pledges, a lack of personal charisma, and the challenge of leading a deeply fractured party. As speculation about an early election in 2024 gains traction, Sunak's prospects appear daunting, marking 2023 as a year he would rather forget.
Promises made, promises missed
As Sunak kicked off the new year in 2023, he made a promise to the British people to uphold five pledges; to halve inflation, foster economic growth, reduce national debt, diminish NHS waiting lists and introduce legislation to tackle the issue of small boats. Sunak boldly invited scrutiny, stating, 'I fully expect you to hold my government and I to account on delivering those goals.' However, as the year progressed, these ambitious promises echoed the fate of many New Year's resolutions – high in aspiration but low in realisation. The phenomenon, of course, isn't unfamiliar to many, including myself (my fluency in French and commitment to the gym haven’t fared well against the test of time this year either). Notably, the only pledge Sunak managed to fulfil was the reduction of inflation, a goal largely influenced by the Bank of England and one that most forecasts had already predicted would be achieved.
While there is a case for empathy towards Sunak, given the ambitious nature of his pledges and the limited timeframe of a year (In addition to domestic challenges, Britain has been grappling with considerable commitments on the global stage) the apparent shift in focus raises questions. In a speech he made in November of last year, it seemed he had sidestepped his initial promises, introducing a fresh set of objectives, including tax cuts, establishing a sustainable energy system, bolstering British businesses, and enhancing education. Continually replacing old goals with new ones can be seen as a lack of commitment or direction, a trait unlikely to inspire confidence in voters. If Sunak’s aim is to secure victory in the next election, this approach of constantly shifting targets might leave voters feeling more dizzy than dazzled.
Sartorial elegance and charismatic absence
Sunak's public appearances have been marked by several missteps that have contributed to the perception of him being out of touch with the everyday experiences of the public. His choice of Prada shoes and designer shoes at a construction site, his struggle to properly use a hammer while crafting jewellery and fumbled with contactless payment during a staged photo-op in a shop to buy a can of coke (lest we forget he is a self-proclaimed ‘coke’ addict), have not gone unnoticed. While it is excessive to pin an election loss solely on such gaffes – after all, no prime minister is immune to the occasional blunder – these incidents do highlight a certain disconnect with the everyday experiences of the public.
This perception of being disconnected extends beyond mere personal quirks to the very policies Sunak champions. His speech at the Tory Conference, filled with significant policy proposals like axing the northern HS2 rail line, overhauling A-level exams, and targeting smoking, seemed misaligned with the more pressing concerns of the majority of voters. These issues, though substantial, don't resonate as strongly as the more immediate challenges like housing shortages, the weighty tax burden, and the concerning rate of economic decline – critical areas Sunak seems hesitant to tackle with vigour, despite his bold pledges at the year's outset. Winning an election demands embracing political risks and addressing the pressing issues that truly affect the nation, a strategy Sunak appears reluctant to adopt.
Caught in the crossfire: The Tory Battle of Factions
A further element in the tapestry of Rishi Sunak's challenging year, yet arguably beyond the ambit of his direct control, is the persistent and deep-seated infighting within the ranks of the Conservative Party. The old ‘Leave Versus Remain’ saga feels like a quaint relic. Enter the era of now 9 distinct factions in the Tory Party, from the European Research Group to the Common-Sense Group, all with sizable memberships and collectively presenting a complex challenge to Rishi Sunak’s leadership.
Of course, every Conservative leader in recent history has been faced by this rapid growth in factionalism, fostered by backbenchers who wish to assert their influence and amplify their voices. However, it is tough to argue that Sunak has abated the warring factions even slightly, a better case can certainly be made for exacerbation. In the past year, Sunak has made some brave, arguably politically suicidal choices, from taking on his own party on the Windsor framework, angering his right flank by bringing back David Cameron and sacking Braverman, to upsetting the left flank by watering down the government’s climate commitments and sticking to Braverman’s stalled Rwanda policy lunacy. In managing the factionalism within the Tory party, Sunak has struggled to strike a successful balance, each emerging faction serving as a reminder of the challenges he faces in unifying the party's direction.
Perhaps I should hold off on carving Sunak’s political epitaph so soon. While the odds seem stacked against him, there remains a sliver of possibility for a political resurgence in the forthcoming election. Sunak's leadership has not been without its diplomatic triumphs, notably improving relations with Emmanuel Macron and strengthening defence ties with the US and Australia. Domestically, recent National Insurance cuts, coupled with Labour's own banality, could offer a more favourable narrative for the Prime Minister. Yet, it is crucial not to overlook his string of losses in by-election after by-election (and most likely some more), a stark reminder of his challenges on home turf. If Sunak does pull off an election victory, it might say more about the lenient, or perhaps oblivious, side of British democracy rather than his own prowess in statecraft. Indeed, 2024 promises to be a year of significant intrigue and consequence in British politics.