Today marks one year since Rishi Sunak replaced Liz Truss as Prime Minister.
Anniversaries, generally, are junctures for those marking an occasion to collectively reminisce — as they consider the possible paths that lay ahead. Politically, therefore, depending on the context into which a special date is received, they can be moments of particular merriment or outright acrimony. As for Rishi Sunak, his official spokesperson said yesterday the the PM is “more focused on the continual delivery for the public than marking an anniversary”.
No change there, is what Sunak’s strategists want you to think. But as No 10 draws attention to Sunak’s purported professionalism, there is no avoiding the fact that a period of reflection — from all of the public, journalists and MPs — is really the last thing the prime minister needs. For the former, certainly, the more they seem to consider Rishi Sunak’s premiership, the less they appear to like it.
One key theme of Rishi Sunak’s premiership a year in has been the transformational impact his time in Downing Street has had on his personal poll ratings. Once elevated some way above his party’s, over the course of the last 12 months they have slowly sunk to those of the Conservatives at large. Sunak had a net favourability of -9 when he took office last October, it is now around -40 — eerily similar to the Conservative Party as a whole at -46, which has remained pretty constant over the past 12 months.
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It wasn’t meant to be this way. Back in October last year, it was hoped that the prime minister’s strong poll ratings relative to his party would slowly lever up the Conservatives’ lagging numbers. This analysis informed a highly personalised mode of governance as the PM pledged to fix the problems his party had both overseen and, on other matters, outright caused. A string of “PM Connect” events followed as Sunak was sent to address the hoi polloi whose “trust” he now so coveted.
Thus, from the wreckage of Liz Truss’ premiership, Sunak emerged with a pointed focus on “fixing things”. Out with the new and in with the orthodoxy, was the throughline of everything Sunak said in his first months as PM: through stability and delivery, No 10 calculated, the public would learn to love the Conservatives again.
But, as Sunak’s premiership has developed, it has become apparent his immediate success in calming a financier class shaken by Trussonomics was the easy bit. After a year of Sunak, the public still views the Conservatives, and more and more so their prime minister, dimly indeed.
Cue a coruscating article on the PM’s fortunes, published last week, with the innocuous title “How has Rishi Sunak’s reputation changed after one year as PM?”. Even more reassuring for readers in No 10 is that it was penned by some sober wonk at YouGov — that neutral interlocutor between protean public opinion and interested politicos. But don’t let Matthew Smith’s ostensibly harmless “Head of Data Journalism” job title fool you — his conclusions, informed by data collated over the course of a year and sans caveats, are devastating. Brace yourself for a sample:
On the eve of his accession to 10 Downing Street, public expectations for Rishi Sunak were mixed: 25% expected him to be “good” or “great” as prime minister, 29% “average”, and 29% “poor” or “terrible”.
A year into the job, Sunak has not lived up to these limited expectations. Half of Britons say he has been a poor or terrible PM (50%), while just 11% think he has been good or great. A third consider him average (33%), which is the prevailing opinion among Conservative voters, at 48%. Three in ten Tory voters (29%) rate Sunak’s first year in office badly, while 20% think his performance has been positive.
There are a number of pertinent data points raised by Smith; but, as he notes, perhaps the most interesting is Sunak’s ratings on the economy. Over the course of the past 12 months, the PM’s reputation for managing the economy has declined starkly — that is despite semi-consistent falls in inflation and the UK’s technical avoidance of recession.
At the time Sunak took office, YouGov’s data found Sunak’s management of the economy was the only major issue of an outlined 12 where a clear margin of Britons expressed confidence in the PM. Then 50 per cent of Britons had confidence in Sunak’s economic skillset, compared to a more sceptical 31 per cent.
Now, only 31 per cent trust the PM to effectively manage the economy, with 62 per cent having little to no confidence in him. Meanwhile, 75 per cent of the public now distrust the PM on immigration, 72 per cent distrust him on the NHS, and 71 per cent on the cost of living.
What is also significant is the new data on Sunak’s handling of what YouGov refers to as the Israel-Palestine conflict. This shows Sunak is distrusted on dealing with the matter with a net -30 score. This is a new issue — but the public instinctively assume the prime minister will handle it poorly.
There will be other factors at play here, of course; but the PM prides himself on his performance on the international stage. His diplomatic efforts have been a core theme of his premiership, including on the Isreal-Hamas conflict with Sunak having delivered a series of statements to the House of Commons on the subject and visited the Middle East last week in a trip aimed at avoiding escalation.
And what of the PM’s prized reputation for competence? The public now see him as incompetent by 46 per cent to 34 per cent. As Smith notes, “this represents a 40 point net drop, from + 28 to -12”.
So the public thinks your rubbish
Step back and YouGov’s polling data both justifies and problematises Sunak’s recent relaunch at Conservative Party conference.
First, it is clear from YouGov’s polling that the public at large is not happy with Sunak’s record as prime minister. A No 10 strategist might calculate, therefore, that new rhetorical emphasises are needed to broaden the discourse beyond their man’s problem areas. Focussing on clear diving lines and amping up pressure on Starmer over HS2 and net zero, the theory runs, could ease the pressure on the government and force voters to consider their enthusiasm for Labour.
But, conversely, the figures also show that Sunak’s overriding problem is not messaging or style — but policy delivery. The public has taken to judging Sunak, perhaps unsurprisingly, on his own terms: and on the economy, the NHS and more, they do not like what they see. Sunak has deep-seated political problems, and they will not be fixed by tampering with net zero targets or ditching the HS2 line to Manchester.
A consistent criticism of Sunak’s relaunch holds that there is no glue to cement his new pitch against “30 years of vested interests standing in the way of change”. In hindsight, “delivery” was supposed to be the core theme of Sunak’s premiership, the glue that held his government together and cohered his pitch to the public. But the view of the electorate, as expressed in the YouGov data is stark: Sunak isn’t working.
So, with the PM once again facing calls to reset his government amid perennial criticism over being too managerial, too nice and not political enough — one wonders where he turns. The big risk for Sunak is that as YouGov’s line graphs continue to express a downward trajectory in his personal ratings, he will be forced into more and more difficult conversations with his party. Further intra-party strife will then deepen public discontent directed at the Conservatives and, if the trend holds, the party will drag Sunak’s ratings down with it.
The question strategists in No 10 will now be grappling with is: how do you change public perceptions that have taken such a strong hold over the preceding 12 months, with only around 12 months left? There are upcoming events where the Conservative Party could display a change in approach — such as at the King’s Speech, the Autumn Statement or in a reshuffle — but there is no escaping the fact that something needs to change drastically if Sunak is to shift the dial before an election.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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