Most Conservatives are rightly relieved and delighted Rishi Sunak is going to be Prime Minister. He is the right man for the job, and should have been in Downing Street a year ago. His talent is obvious, and as a country we can be proud he’s our Prime Minister. However, this relief shouldn’t get in the way of the harsh reality check of his and the Party’s position. The Conservatives can only have a hope of improving their position if they realise how bad it is. Here’s a brief, depressing summary.
Rishi Sunak is unpopular. There will likely be no real honeymoon with voters. Rishi Sunak is known to them already and walks into No 10 with a net favourability rating of -28. Amongst working-class voters it’s -40 and amongst Northerners -51. Just before his resignation, people thought he was doing a bad job as Chancellor by 44 per cent to 21 per cent (with the rest unsure).
When I asked about him in focus groups during his term in office, he was initially very popular; people saw him as a different sort of politician – honest, open, decent, trustworthy. But the flurry of negative stories about him in the spring – tax and legal affairs, the fine – propelled him into negative territory precisely because they once liked him and felt let down.
It was tragic to hear; people felt sad they couldn’t give him their support. I suspect the qualities they initially liked in him will raise his ratings and voters will come to respect him, but the scale of the task ahead of him makes it unlikely they’ll come to like him. Incidentally, I think the stuff about his wealth isn’t a problem. It’ll be used to beat him with if he makes mistakes; it’s not a problem in itself.
He lacks sharp campaigning skills. Poor communications didn’t cause Liz Truss’ problems; incompetent decision-making did. The public want competence and Rishi Sunak will bring that.
However, campaign skills matter for a Prime Minister and there’s no getting away from this: Liz Truss originally roundly defeated Rishi Sunak with a superior performance. Those people who said he must be watching with grim satisfaction during her terrible time in Government aren’t seeing things the right way around. He was beaten by a historically weak rival.
He has got something – he comes across as a decent and nice person, which those who have met him will confirm he is. However, given the scale and complexity of the task, he will need to radically improve his communications and place great communicators in the jobs that require immediate public connection.
The Conservative Party is wildly unpopular. If Rishi Sunak is unpopular, the reputation of the Party itself is diabolical. Where do you start? Its polling ratings are at -58; even before the Truss Debacle, it was seen as being a party for the rich and for businesses. The aftermath of the mini-budget – with the immediate threat of unexpected and brutal austerity – has almost certainly permanently shredded its reputation for economic competence.
I also wouldn’t discount the revulsion people have felt seeing MPs gleefully trying to return Boris Johnson to No 10. And I also wouldn’t discount continued fall-out from that awful first leadership campaign which mostly ignored issues people care about.
So many politicians have been discredited. Who will Rishi Sunak put in the Cabinet? So many senior politicians have discredited themselves in recent times, and some have disgraced themselves. He will struggle to find people to fill jobs who the public don’t already intensely dislike and the talent pool within the wider Parliamentary Party is extremely shallow.
The Conservatives have catastrophically mishandled austerity. I wrote a few weeks back the public were prepared for spending cuts. They didn’t want them but would have reluctantly accepted them. Since the summer of 2020, voters told us in focus groups they expected we’d all have to pay Covid debts in the end; they were also aware the energy bail out made this even more likely.
The Conservatives didn’t take this choice, instead gambling on an expansionary budget; when this bombed, they reversed policy and told people actually austerity was coming – and would be worse than they ever feared. As a result, it looks like massive cuts are the result of basic stupidity. People will be filled with rage if this comes to pass on the 31st.
Working-class Tories have been leaving the Party in droves. I won’t elaborate on this here as I have written extensively about it in recent weeks and my paper addresses this in detail. But, again, the working-class voters who propelled the Conservatives into Government in 2019 can no longer be relied on. They are leaving in droves – many of them to the “don’t know” line, but increasingly to Labour. It’s hard to think of any reasons for working-class voters to stay with the Party at this point.
People want a General Election. People want a General Election and you can’t blame them. It’s simply not credible to replace two Prime Ministers, introduce austerity that you promised you’d never introduce, and then carry on as if nothing has happened. It’s particularly absurd to warn voters about tough times ahead – taking a Churchillian tone – when it was your mistakes that caused the problem. I appreciate the reality of this is more complex, but we’re talking about politics here and this will be the perception.
A final thought. People are wet and cold but they’re still not putting their heating on for fear they can’t afford it. They’re also buying and eating cheaper food, cutting back on all but the essentials, and driving less. They’re worried about how they’ll pay for Christmas. They’re not in the mood to be mucked about anymore; they will not tolerate any more BS.