How Rishi Sunak's Hopes Of A Tory Revival Once Again Ended In Disaster

The Autumn Statement was meant to turn around the Tories' fortunes. It didn't.
Rishi Sunak has had another bad week.
Rishi Sunak has had another bad week.
Damon Scheleur/HuffPost

Rishi Sunak should be used to false dawns by now.

The last few months alone have seen a number of attempted resets by the prime minister - from watering down the government’s net zero policies to making a policy-heavy Tory conference speech - fail to dent Labour’s commanding opinion poll lead.

Nevertheless, even he must be surprised at how a week that initially held such promise for the government has once again ended in Conservative acrimony.

The Autumn Statement on Wednesday was meant to be the start of a serious Tory fightback, possibly teeing up a general election next May.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt unveiled what he described as “the biggest package of tax cuts since the 1980s” as he declared the UK economy has “turned a corner”.

But it all started to unravel within minutes when it emerged that the independent Office for Budget responsibility pointed out that, in actual fact, the overall tax burden will still hit a post-war high by the end of the decade.

Hunt was accused of trying to “hoodwink” the public by painting a misleadingly optimistic picture of the state of the nation’s finances.

Tory MPs, however, were pleased with the chancellor’s efforts.

One senior backbencher told HuffPost UK: “We have been in the economic and political first gear for the last year, with the Autumn Statement we moved into a welcome third gear. It is still the right judgement call to wait until next year to move into fourth gear.

“Sir Keir looked gloomy. He knew this was the beginning of a serious fight back. Rishi could still end up winning and repeating the 2015 election result.”

A former cabinet minister said that he, too, was pleased with what was announced - but dismissed any suggestion that it marks the start of a Conservative fightback.

He said: “There was nothing bad in the Autumn Statement, and actually I think there was a lot of good in it.

“But it wasn’t a gamechanger because I don’t think the game can be changed. The public have already made up their mind.”

That seemed to be confirmed by a poll carried out after the Autumn Statement which showed that Labour’s lead has increased to a scarcely-believable 25 points.

Luke Tryl, UK director of the More in Common think-tank, told HuffPost UK that the chancellor may have to find the money for “big bazooka giveaway” in the Budget next spring to give the Tories any hope of winning the election.

He said: “The dial will only shift when people feel better off and at the moment people don’t feel better off.

“They still feel poorer and less able to do the things that they were able to do at the start of this parliament.

“It was good that they managed to get their message out without it being derailed, but I would be surprised if it delivered anything other than a small, temporary bump for the Conservatives.

“It might get them from the low 20s in the polls to the mid-20s, but until they are regularly hitting the 30s it’s difficult to see how they turn it around.

“The Autumn Statement certainly wasn’t a gap-closing event.”

Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt attach a Nissan badge to the grill of a newly manufactured car at the Nissan production plant in Sunderland yesterday.
Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt attach a Nissan badge to the grill of a newly manufactured car at the Nissan production plant in Sunderland yesterday.
IAN FORSYTH via Getty Images

Sunak was not helped by the fact that an exchange in the Commons shortly before Hunt got to his feet on Wednesday ended up vying with the Autumn Statement for the public’s attention.

At prime minister’s questions, Labour MP Alex Cunningham asked why 34% of children in his Stockton North constituency are living in poverty.

Multiple Labour members, including Cunningham himself, say they heard home secretary James Cleverly remark: “It’s a shithole.” After initially denying he had said anything, a source close to Cleverly eventually claimed he had actually described Cunningham as “a shit MP”.

Ben Houchen, the Tory mayor of Tees Valley and a man well aware of how Red Wall voters leant their votes to the Tories at the last election, made it clear who he believed when he called on the home secretary to apologise for dragging Stockton’s name “through the mud”.

Worse was to come for the PM when new figures showed that net migration figures had trebled since 2019, when the Tories’ election manifesto promised to bring them down.

That led to right-wing Tory MPs warning that the party faces a “do or die” moment if it fails to keep that promise, and prompted yet another angry outburst from Suella Braverman.

The former home secretary said: “Today’s record numbers are a slap in the face to the British public who have voted to control and reduce migration at every opportunity. We must act now to reduce migration to sustainable levels.

“Brexit gave us the tools. We must use them.”

So another week passes at Westminster with Rishi Sunak still searching for the elusive game-changer that will give the Tories a fighting chance at the next election.

He is quickly running out of time.


What's Hot