After two months of largely positive headlines, Rishi Sunak’s premiership has hit a few bumps in the road over the past 10 days.
The signing of the Windsor Framework, a gaffe-free Budget and the publication of the Illegal Migration Bill – allied to a narrowing of Labour’s poll lead – had led some Tory MPs to start dreaming of election victory next year.
One told HuffPost UK: “I think people think there’s a glimmer of hope, which is a far cry from the position six months ago, which looked utterly hopeless.”
But the past week and a half has demonstrated that while the Tories are in better shape than they were last year, Sunak still faces monumental challenges if he is to convince voters that the government deserves a historic fifth term in office.
At the start of the year, the prime minister unveiled five promises he wanted to be judged by come the next election: halving inflation, cutting NHS waiting lists, growing the economy, bringing down the national debt and stopping the small boats carrying asylum seekers across the English Channel.
“No tricks, no ambiguity – we’re either delivering for you or we’re not,” he said.
“We will rebuild trust in politics through action, or not at all. So, I ask you to judge us on the effort we put in and the results we achieve.”
Unfortunately for the PM, the progress being made on those pledges so far is disappointing at best and non-existent at worst.
On April 13, it was confirmed that far from cutting waiting lists, they are now longer than ever before, with a staggering 7.22 million people now waiting to start routine hospital treatment.
The bad news for the PM kept coming this week when official data revealed that the CPI rate of inflation fell from 10.4% in February to 10.1% in March, a far smaller reduction than experts were predicting.
Even more worryingly, they also showed that food prices – a metric easily understood by voters every time they go to the supermarket – soared by 19.1% in the past year, the highest rate since 1977.
And on small boats – the key barometer by which Sunak’s premiership will be judged by many – figures out on Wednesday revealed that more than 5,000 asylum seekers have made the crossing in 2023 so far.
While that represents a 20% drop on the same point last year, it still a far cry from the PM’s pledge to end the journeys entirely.
Significantly, Downing Street also confirmed this week that Sunak is not promising to have stopped the boats by the time of the next election, a tacit admission that this is a problem which may well be intractable.
One senior Tory told HuffPost UK: “Stopping the boats was always a headline grabbing slogan with no substance. How about actually processing some asylum cases before dumping them in an actual prison ship?
“We’ve seen 5,000 arrivals in the first four months of this year, which will only increase with better weather, so his grand plan appears to not be working.
“And we still don’t have returns agreements with other countries, so where are we ‘sending them back’ to?
“The home secretary has managed to send more journalists to Rwanda than migrants.”
“The Home Secretary has managed to send more journalists to Rwanda than migrants.”
Other Conservatives are more optimistic, however, and insist the next election is still up for grabs.
“The recent polling shows that he is playing relatively well with the public,” a former cabinet minister told HuffPost UK.
“Most people think it’s still uphill but it’s not all over. It’s a much more professional operation rather than all the nonsense we had before.
“Labour support is generally from people who want a change, but I don’t think those people who have moved over are heavily committed to Labour, so they can be won back.”
One senior Tory backbencher said that even if he fails to “stop the boats”, it will not necessarily mean the end of Sunak’s hopes of remaining in Number 10.
“I think the small boats thing will be pitched at the election as we’re trying to do something about it, whereas Labour would do nothing about it,” he said.
“It’s a very difficult problem that can only be resolved with the assistance of the French, but that’ll all take time. I think voters get that.”
At the local elections in less than two weeks’ time, voters across England and Wales will have their first opportunity to pass judgment on Sunak’s time in No.10.
A Labour source said: “The prime minister cynically set the bar as low as possible for his pledges so he could attempt to claim great success without actually having to do much.
“It’ll be a pretty remarkable achievement if he fails to even mark his own homework.
“We’ve had 13 years of Tory failure and broken promises. It’s time for real change.”
Sunak’s big gamble is that people will appreciate having a prime minister focused on their priorities and cut him some slack, even if progress on his pledges is pretty slow thus far.
But the verdict they pass at the next general election will be a brutal one if they believe he has been all talk and no action.