Year Zero: How 12 Months Of Rishi Sunak Has Changed Nothing

Since replacing Liz Truss as prime minister, the Tories' fortunes are still no better.
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images

As anniversary presents go, losing two previously-safe Tory seats to Labour is far from ideal.

But, as he prepares to mark one year in 10 Downing Street on Wednesday, that is where Rishi Sunak finds himself.

Despite all of the pledges, relaunches and policy announcements, the Tories find themselves pretty much where they were when Sunak took over from Liz Truss 12 months ago - miles behind Labour in the polls and without a clear, coherent strategy for turning things around before the next election.

Thursday’s devastating defeats in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth have simply added to the sense of unease on the Tory backbenches.

One senior Conservative MP told HuffPost UK that there is still time for Sunak to pull it out the fire, but he and chancellor Jeremy Hunt must first throw off their inherent caution.

“Next month’s autumn statement is crucial - if we just have more of the same then we are doomed,” he said.

“We’re running out of time and we need some big headline takeaway policy from that to get the Tory vote motivated and energised. If we have more of the same and steady as she goes it will be a massive opportunity missed.

“Personally, I’d like to see us scrap inheritance tax. That would be hugely symbolic. But if there’s no big bang moment, there will be no shifting in the polls.”

A former cabinet member said: “We’re now in ‘waiting for something to turn up’ territory, which is not a great place to be.”

Newly elected Labour MP Sarah Edwards (second left) with party leader Keir Starmer at Tamworth Football Club, after winning the Tamworth by-election.
Newly elected Labour MP Sarah Edwards (second left) with party leader Keir Starmer at Tamworth Football Club, after winning the Tamworth by-election.
Jacob King - PA Images via Getty Images

Sunak has undoubtedly brought calm and professionalism to the Downing Street operation after the chaos of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

But clearing that low bar has not shielded him from the harsh political reality that the Tories find themselves in.

The party has fought no fewer than nine Westminster by-elections since Sunak became PM, but have only won one - the Uxbridge and South Ruislip contest, which effectively became a referendum on Sadiq Khan’s controversial decision to extend London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ).

Sunak’s five pledges to voters at the start of the year have left the public underwhelmed, while his failure to “stop the boats” carrying asylum seekers across the Channel has earned him the unenviable reputation of being someone who over-promises but under-delivers.

His Tory conference speech earlier this month saw him scrap the Manchester leg of HS2, announce the end of A-levels and begin the phasing out of smoking. But once again, it was to little or no avail as far as public opinion is concerned.

One senior Tory source said: “Sunak inherited a toxic and fractured party in which he was not the first preference for the job. He spent a large amount of the last 12 months not saying much and then suddenly woke up before conference and decided to become presidential.

“His conference speech was full of ‘I’ and ‘me’ not “‘we’ or ‘the party’. His wife did a First Lady impression by giving a speech and telling us how nice her hubby is. None of us particularly want nice, we would settle for competent -which he isn’t.”

The PM’s next big call will be when to hold the next election, which must take place by January 2025 at the latest.

One MP said: “I’ve always thought October next year, but more and more colleagues are saying that if we hang on till then we’ll have even more small boats coming next summer, so he needs to go in the spring.”

Another senior Tory said: “He will have to go to the country sooner rather than later as we just risk further mistakes and a total wipeout. If he holds out until January 2025 then I’m leaving the country as I can’t imagine a more miserable existence than an election campaign across Christmas and new year.”

Despite some excited speculation that Sunak could face a leadership challenge, few MPs truly believe that is a realistic prospect.

“There’s no feeling abroad in the party that there’s going to be a move against him,” one minister said.

“From reading the Tory WhatsApp groups and talking to colleagues, everybody appreciates that now is the time to put our shoulders to the wheel and stick together.”

Sunak knew what he was getting into when he became Tory leader a year ago, but he would have expected to have at least made some progress towards blocking Labour’s route to power.

If he wants to have more than another year in No.10, he needs to change the fortunes of his party - and the country - very soon.


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