How Rishi Sunak Planned A Fightback But Ended Up On The Ropes

The "invisible" prime minister is struggling to turn around the Tories' faltering fortunes as he emerges from his bunker.
Rishi Sunak does not have his troubles to seek.
Rishi Sunak does not have his troubles to seek.
Damon Scheleur/HuffPost

There’s just no pleasing some people.

In the first few weeks after Rishi Sunak became prime minister, the main criticism was that he was invisible.

The former chancellor, the narrative went, was much happier holed up in the Downing Street bunker poring over spreadsheets and data than being out and about explaining to voters what he wanted to do now he was PM.

As the Conservatives continued to languish behind Labour in the polls, the decision was taken in Number 10 that the PM needed to get on the front foot, be more visible and make the case for why his party deserves another chance at the next election.

A major speech was delivered two weeks ago setting out five promises on which Sunak said his government should be judged.

This was followed by a “broadcast to the nation” - in reality a glorified party political broadcast for the Conservative Party - designed to let voters see the real Sunak.

The verdict delivered subsequently by ordinary people, however, suggests that the more they see of Sunak, the less they like him.

A YouGov poll last week showed that Labour’s lead had actually grown to 22 points, while - even more worryingly for Number 10 - Sunak’s own personal ratings have continued to fall, meaning he is now less popular than even Boris Johnson was when he left office.

It’s safe to say the past week will have done nothing to change their minds.

‘Are you ignoring democracy?’

The most memorable moment from Sunak’s visit last week to Scotland was an excruciating video which, from the PM’s point of view, went viral for all the wrong reasons.

In an interview with STV, he was asked whether he would accept the result if, as SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon wants, the next general election was treated as a “de facto referendum” on Scottish independence.

As Sunak tried to dodge the question, he was repeatedly interrupted by the journalist, Colin Mackay, who ended up asking if he was “ignoring democracy”.

Yet another U-turn

He may have been prime minister for less than three months, but Sunak has already established a strong reputation for buckling under pressure from his MPs.

The latest climbdown came on Tuesday, when he agreed to toughen up the online safety bill after dozens of his backbenchers demanded that social media bosses face jail if they allow children to see harmful content on their sites.

This followed previous U-turns on housebuilding targets and new onshore wind farms.

He may have a majority of around 70 seats on paper, but as one former cabinet minister told HuffPost UK: “If more than 25 Tory MPs are against something, it’s not going to happen.”

Strikes, strikes and more strikes

There has been no respite for Sunak either in the government’s ongoing battle with the unions.

The National Education Union announced on Monday that its members had voted to strike, raising the prospect of thousands of schools across England having to close their doors.

This was followed by the Royal College of Nursing announcing further strike dates next month, while ambulance staff will also stage a series of further walkouts in the weeks ahead.

The big day, however, will be February 1, when up to half a million teachers, civil servants and rail workers will walkout, bringing widespread disruption across the country.

Sunak has to hope that public opinion will turn against the unions, but there is little evidence of that happening so far.

Levelling up omnishambles

Thursday was meant to be a big day for Rishi Sunak, but it started badly and ended in disaster.

The PM’s decision to take an RAF jet to Blackpool for a series of events highlighting the £2.1 billion-worth of levelling up cash being handed out to projects across the country backfired spectacularly.

Coming just a week after he had been criticised for using the same mode of transport to get from London to Leeds, it was an unnecessary PR own goal which was leapt on gleefully by Labour.

“Jetting around the country on taxpayers’ money like an A-list celeb rather than catching a train like the rest of us is simply absurd,” said a spokesperson.

Sunak was also forced to defend the decision to award £19 million to his wealthy constituency while funding bids from deprived areas were rejected.

His critics weren’t only on the opposition benches, however, with Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, criticising the “begging bowl culture” created by the bidding process, and many Tory MPs also making clear their displeasure at their areas missing out on extra cash.

Another key part of new Number 10 strategy of letting Sunak meet the public - a series of “PM Connect” events around the country - kicked off in Morecambe, but even that proved controversial when he appeared to call his own MPs “idiots” for wanting immediate tax cuts.

If all that wasn’t bad enough, much worse was still to come.

Rishi Su-nicked

Having the PM do a piece to camera in the back of his chauffeur-driven car must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Unfortunately, no one thought to tell him that it might be advisable to make sure he was wearing a seatbelt before sharing it online.

Despite an abject apology for his “error of judgement”, Lancashire Police last night confirmed they were handing Sunak a fixed penalty notice - his second in less than 12 months after he was also fined last year for breaking lockdown rules.

The schadenfreude from Boris Johnson-supporting MPs - who will never forgive Sunak for the part he played in their man’s downfall - will be overwhelming.

Sunak delivers his seatbelt-less piece to camera.
Sunak delivers his seatbelt-less piece to camera.
Rishi Sunak

But despite his travails, and the ongoing speculation about a Johnson comeback, Sunak does still have the support of most of his MPs - at least for now.

One senior backbencher told HuffPost UK: “Rishi’s performance at PMQs has been good and effective. He has also managed to get more of the public on our side over strikes than perhaps anyone expected.

“We are all awaiting the May election results to see if Rishi is resonating positively on the doorsteps.

“I don’t think the public have made up their minds about Rishi yet either way, whatever the polls might say.”

One thing is for sure, though: the prime minister can ill-afford to have many more weeks like the last one.


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