‘A difficult hand played poorly’: how No 10 slipped from Sunak’s grasp

Rishi Sunak Illustration: Sam Kerr

Rishi Sunak became Britain’s prime minister quickly and unexpectedly in October 2022 after the short, financially catastrophic premiership of Liz Truss and the leadership of Boris Johnson, whose loose moral compass had allowed Downing Street to party while the rest of the UK was locked down.

The economic situation was dire – inflation at 11%, mortgages threatening to soar by £5,000 a year – and the political inheritance more desperate. But since then the 44-year-old prime minister has failed to turn around the Conservative’s fortunes. Lacking a transformative touch, he led the party to a historic defeat.

“Undoubtedly, Rishi had a difficult hand,” said Lee Cain, a former No 10 director of communications under Johnson who has also advised Sunak and now runs his own firm, Charlesbye Strategy.

“But he played it poorly. He had broadly the wrong strategy from the start, in an environment where people were crying out for change. You heard it in every focus group, but Rishi came in and positioned himself as the status quo candidate.”

Team Sunak’s original plan was to under-promise and over-deliver. On the day he started, his Conservatives were 30 points behind the Labour opposition in the polls. In his first address to the nation as prime minister, Sunak promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability” and said: “Trust is earned. And I will earn yours.”

There are arguably two Sunaks. The first is an immigrant success story: a British Asian from Southampton, Hampshire, a practising Hindu, the son of a GP and pharmacist, who made the historic achievement of becoming the UK’s first non-white prime minister. At the age 42, he was the youngest leader of the country in more than 200 years.

The other is a full member of Britain’s old fashoned establishment, who studied at the fee-paying Winchester College, then Oxford, before a career in the City of London and California’s Silicon Valley and a plum seat in parliament. This is the man married to a wealthy heiress, Akshata Murty, whose shareholding in the Indian IT business her father co-founded is worth nearly £600m.

Rishi Sunak criticised after footage emerges of him saying he has ‘no working-class friends’ – video

In a period – and an election – dominated by concerns of the British public about the soaring cost of energy and living costs, it was the second that won out. During his time in office, stories routinely appeared reflecting Sunak’s wealth, making him appear out of touch. A heated 12-metre (40ft) pool in his Yorkshire home used so much power that the local electricity network had to be upgraded.

In Downing Street, the central strategy was to restore financial credibility, and the first of five promises made in January 2023 was to halve inflation. “He believed in sound money, not a cause that made anybody’s heart beat faster,” said Andrew Gimson, the author of a history of Britain’s prime ministers, and a biography of Johnson.

As a politician, Sunak had risen fast, perhaps too fast. He first became an MP in 2015, in the normally safe Conservative seat of Richmond, North Yorkshire, and was promoted to chancellor in February 2020 when Johnson’s advisory team thought he would be more malleable than predecessor, Sajid Javid.

Though an economic liberal by instinct, during the coronavirus crisis Sunak introduced the radical furlough scheme, where the state paid 80% of the wages of employees who were suddenly without work. He referred to it as his greatest political success, necessary because “I saw a country whose future hung in the balance”.

A few months later, Sunak launched a controversial “eat out to help out” scheme, later referred to by Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, as “eat out to help the virus”.

But Sunak quit as chancellor in July 2022 in protest at Johnson’s leadership, the second minister to walk out (nine minutes after Javid) in a string of resignations that brought down the then prime minister. “The public expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously,” he said at the time.

As prime minister, Sunak, a keen student of government papers, surrounded himself with loyalists. They were led by the cerebral former Spectator political journalist James Forsyth, originally a school friend from Winchester, described as the man who would “go back into the PM’s room after meetings”. Internal critics, however, argued the prime minister was not challenged enough by those around him.

If there was a high point, it came in February 2023, when Sunak successfully negotiated the Windsor framework with the EU, simplifying trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which had been complicated by the UK leaving the EU. The country was exhausted by seemingly endless Brexit struggles, so Sunak’s deal was a relief. The EU president, Ursula von der Leyen, described the prime minister warmly as “dear Rishi” and needle with Brussels appeared over.

The Labour lead had been cut to a still significant 21 points at the time of the Windsor deal. It dropped to 15 points by mid-April, only for progress to go into reverse soon after. In June, Johnson resigned as an MP to avoid censure by a parliamentary committee that was about to find him guilty of deliberately misleading parliament over parties in Downing Street during lockdown.

Critically, Sunak could not bring himself to disown Johnson and, alongside 225 other Conservative MPs, did not turn up for a final Commons vote to endorse the committee’s report and its now symbolic punishment of 90 days suspension from parliament.

Sunak, in London, was apparently tied up meeting his Swedish counterpart during the day. Though his spokesperson said Sunak “respects the result”, they could not bring themself to say how he may have voted if he had attended. Such circumlocutions might have held the Conservatives together, but they did little to impress a still angry British public.

The Conservative poll share was declining again – and panic was setting in. A relaunch was planned for Sunak’s party conference speech in October, with a cluster of new initiatives, though they were not obviously coherent, popular in his own party, or, in the most notable case, well timed.

HS2 scrapped: how did we get here? – video timeline

In Manchester, where the conference was held, Sunak announced the cancellation of the HS2 high-speed rail line to Manchester. A radical proposal to ban smoking for anybody born from 2009 was announced – “there is no safe level of smoking,” Sunak declared to a surprised audience, whose free-market instincts generally oppose prohibitions. Ultimately, Sunak killed off that policy, halting its legal passage, when he called election early.

A big political problem for Sunak, however, was migration to the UK. The fifth of his initial five priorities was, he said, to “stop the boats”. The idea was to halt small boat crossings of the Channel, though it was physically impossible to do. Although the numbers involved this year are a record – 12,901 to the end of June – they are dwarfed by legal migration, even allowing for Brexit, at 685,000 in 2023.

The prime minister had inherited a controversial scheme to deport those who entered the UK illegally, including by small boat, to Rwanda. Yet, after months of legal battles, and rewriting the core legislation to override human rights law, nobody has been forcibly deported under the £370m scheme.

Sensing weakness last November, the home secretary, Suella Braverman, broke ranks. She had courted controversy and the right for more than a year – describing small boat crossings as an “invasion” – and was seen as Sunak’s chief Conservative critic.

Braverman accused the Metropolitan police of going soft on essentially peaceful pro-Palestinian marches after the start of the Israel-Hamas war, in an article in the Times. It led to her being sacked a few days later. There was little doubt that Braverman had to go, but Sunak’s team did not fight hard enough to prevent the article being published and had to say weakly that it had “not been agreed”.

Suella Braverman sacked: how pressure mounted on former home secretary – video timeline

According to Cain, the effect of Sunak’s small boats rhetoric “was to raise the salience of the issue, on a problem he could not solve”. That cost him support on the right, while he was losing support in the left and centre by failing to dent NHS waiting lists in England, which rose by 350,000 to 7.6m after he had promised to cut them. “He said he wanted to tackle waiting lists, but allowed a junior doctors strike to rumble on since March 2023,” Cain added.

A surprise followed in the ensuing reshuffle. Sunak appointed the former prime minister David Cameron as foreign secretary. It highlighted an impatience with foreign affairs. Sunak was rarely interested in the PR opportunities presented by diplomacy. Those who went with him on a trip to Ukraine in January this year said he was pleasantly surprised by the positive reception he got when he told the country’s parliament: “I come from the world’s oldest parliament to address the world’s bravest.”

Sunak was not a normally a leader to produce a memorable line in the style of Johnson or Tony Blair. “I can’t recall him producing a resonant phrase as prime minister,” said Gimson. The prime minister overreacted in February when he argued that “mob rule is replacing democratic rule” in response to British protests about the crisis in Gaza. But by then, nothing was working.

He called an election for 4 July, six months early, choosing inexplicably to announce it in the pouring rain outside No 10. The Conservatives were 21 points behind Labour and little changed throughout. A promise to bring back military service for 18-year-olds, rejected a few months earlier, left the electorate bewildered and unimpressed.

Sensing an opportunity on immigration, the hard-right populist Nigel Farage launched a campaign. His Reform UK took votes for the Conservatives. And while Sunak mostly held up well during the campaign, performing aggressively in a television debate with his Labour rival, Keir Starmer, he was undone by failing to stay in Normandy for long enough to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-day with the presidents of the US and France, Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron.

Rishi Sunak apologises to ITV interviewer after D-day event ‘ran over’ – video

The next day, a crushed and wounded look in Sunak’s eye – the sign of truth in a top politician – showed that he knew he had failed on his own terms. “These men made the ultimate sacrifice and you couldn’t even sacrifice a whole afternoon?” a reporter asked. Near the end, Sunak resorted to hoping for a last-minute miracle in the style of England’s dramatic 2-1 Euros win over Slovakia.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” was one of his final campaign lines, but the reality was that after 14 years of chaotic Conservative rule, he could not find a way to convince the British people to stay with the party. Many believe he made a difficult situation worse, with no progress on issues such as NHS care and immigration, and little on the cost of living.

“There’s no question that Sunak, as a prime minister, was well above the average in his grasp of policy. But from a strictly political point of view, he was probably one of the most hapless,” Gimson concluded. Inflation, meanwhile, had fallen to 2%.

The Guardian

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