Six weeks is a very short time to judge a new prime minister’s performance. But part of Rishi Sunak’s problem is that he doesn’t have much time. The countdown clock to Britain’s next general election – due no later than two years from now – is already ticking loudly. And if the governing Conservatives can’t improve on their current performance, they will not only be swept out of power but humbled electorally in much the same manner as India’s Congress.
So how’s the new boy – and at 42, there is a boy-ish quality about him – doing so far? Well, from one vantage point, not too bad. Interest rates have started to settle down, the financial markets have been reassured and a measure of stability has returned to government economic policy. The painful memory of Liz Truss’s chaotically incompetent seven weeks in office is starting to fade.
Sunak gives every impression of being comfortable in power. He comes across as both competent and honest – and it’s a while since people here have been able to say that of a prime minister – and has stayed cheerfully upbeat in the face of a relentless barrage of bad news. Inflation remains painfully high at over 10%; wages are not rising at the same rate, which means that most people are poorer; nurses, train drivers and postal workers are staging strikes to demand higher pay; and the tax increases and public spending cuts which Sunak is introducing to help balance the government’s books are hardly going to make him more popular.
It’s hard to imagine how the Conservatives’ standing is going to improve amid such a profound cost of living crisis. Bill Clinton’s famous political adage – ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ – works both ways. If the economy tanks on your watch, you go down with it.
So in party terms, the verdict so far on Sunak would have to be, not too good. The Conservatives have been in power since 2010 and have won four successive general elections. They are not used to coming second. They have also – having summarily despatched two serving prime ministers so far this year – become habitually mutinous.
Sunak’s government is facing rebellions from backbench MPs on issues as varied as easing planning laws to allow more houses to be built, to promoting on-shore wind turbines to ease reliance on fossil fuels. The new prime minister has become accustomed to giving way gracefully. He declared he was too busy to go to the climate change conference in Egypt; his MPs thought that was a mistake; Mr Sunak duly caught the plane to Cairo. There have been other about-turns. You could say that’s simply political pragmatism, but cumulatively they start to erode a leader’s credibility.
Opinion polls, of course, are just that – a snapshot of political opinion, and not a forecast of who will win the next election. But the recent polls have been staggeringly bad for Sunak. The best poll since he took office, from the Conservatives’ point of view, put the party 14 points behind the Labour opposition; the worst polls suggest a gap of more than double that. This points to something more than mid-term unpopularity. The swashbuckling dishonesty of Boris Johnson and the wilful incompetence of Liz Truss have deeply damaged the Conservative brand.
Last week, we had the first Parliamentary by-election of the Sunak era. It was in a seat that the Conservatives had no real chance of winning. But the party didn’t just lose – it got its lowest share of the vote in the constituency since 1832. Not 1932, but 1832.
There are clear signs that Conservatives themselves have begun to give up hope of winning the next election. Although there’s still two years to go (Sunak could hold an election earlier but given all his difficulties that is vanishingly unlikely) the party is confirming its choice of candidates. And there’s been a spate of sitting Conservative MPs who have announced they will not stand again.
These are not simply the grey-haired veterans, but some of the party’s rising stars. Sajid Javid, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer and a heavy-hitter, has announced he’s moving away from politics; he’s 52. Chloe Smith, another former minister and also highly regarded, is standing down too; she’s 40. Dehenna Davison, an outspoken young Conservative MP seen until a few days ago as on the brink of political stardom, has also announced she won’t contest the next election; she’s 29.
Whatever the reasons offered, most believe that these MPs are standing down either because they are convinced they will lose their seats – or if they win, they will face the frustration of being in opposition, perhaps for a long time.
Nothing is certain in politics. The Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, is seen as decent and competent, but cautious and worse, dull, too. It’s just possible that, in an increasingly presidential style of electioneering, Sunak will convince the voters that however tough things are, they are better sticking with him.
But the much more widely held view is that we are now witnessing a once-in-a-generation shift in political loyalties, where a governing party is seen as tired, discredited and unworthy of public trust. Once that shift takes hold, there’s little a ruling party can do to avoid defeat by an innings and more. There’s little doubt that Sunak will remain the team captain for the next couple of years, but he is on a losing wicket.
It was just such a pendulum swing back in 1997 which ended 18 years of Conservative rule and saw Labour, initially under Tony Blair, take power for 13 years.
That’s the thing about democracies. The electoral pendulum does swing back; there’s no golden rule about when and how, but it does. Eventually.
Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India Correspondent and also reported for the BBC on British politics.