Rishi Sunak's sad task: to lead the British Conservatives towards probable defeat

Just days before Britain's Conservative Party suffered a major setback in Thursday's local elections, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recorded a short video to promote some good news from his government. In the eight-second clipMr Sunak poured milk from a pint bottle into a tall glass, filled with a dark, steaming drink and bearing the scribbled figure of 900 pounds on the side.

“Payday is coming,” Sunak wrote, referring to the savings an average wage earner would presumably get from a cut in mandatory contributions to Britain's national insurance system.

Soon the mockery began. She had added too much milk, some said. His numbers didn't add up, others said. And why, one critic asked, would Sunak choose a pint bottle as a prop just days after the deputy leader of the opposition Labor Party, Angela Rayner, skewered him in Parliament as a “pint loser?” “.

However biased his line, loser is a label that Sunak is finding increasingly difficult to shed, even among members of his own party. In the 18 months since he replaced his failed predecessor, Liz Truss, Sunak, 43, has lost seven consecutive parliamentary elections and local elections.

Last week's local elections, in which the Conservatives lost around 40% of the 985 seats they were defending, were simply the latest sign of what analysts say is on the road to a heavy defeat in the general election. National polls show Labor leading the Conservatives by more than 20 percentage points, a stubborn gap that the prime minister has failed to close.

The roll of bad news is casting a fresh gaze on Sunak's leadership and the future of his party, which has been in power for 14 years but faces what could be a long period of political wilderness.

For now, Sunak appears to have put to rest rumors that a cabal of Conservative lawmakers would try to oust him before the vote, expected in the autumn. The local results, while negative, were not as catastrophic as they could have been, avoiding a full-blown panic among his colleagues. Having alternated three prime ministers since the last election, the Conservatives are also short of alternative leaders.

Torn as he is, Sunak looks set to limp into the general election as the standard-bearer of an exhausted and divided party.

“The broader view is that it is probably best now to let Rishi stay in place and absorb the defeat, and let successors position themselves for what happens after Labor wins in a landslide,” said Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist at the University of Washington. Kent who advised the Conservative Party.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and a Conservative pundit, said: “He looks, to be honest, like a dead man walking.”

Sunak's defenders say he is a victim of global economic headwinds arising from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the poisoned legacy he inherited from Ms Truss, whose sweeping tax cuts plan spooked financial markets and tarnished the reputation of Great Britain for fiscal rectitude. .

Britain's persistent inflation, high mortgage rates and a stagnant economy all predate Sunak. The inflation rate has fallen to 3.2% from 11.1% when he took office, although credit for this goes mainly to the Bank of England.

Sunak was praised for stabilizing markets and restoring Britain's credibility after the Truss. But critics argue that this was never followed up with a convincing strategy to revive growth. Nor has he kept his other two promises: reducing NHS waiting times and stopping small boats ferrying asylum seekers across the Channel.

“Liz Truss has ruined the party's reputation for economic competence,” Professor Bale said. “But she is also dependent on Sunak: she doesn't have the grip, the charisma or the authority that someone carrying out the required rescue work would need.”

Part of this, critics say, reflects Sunak's political shortcomings. He can be querulous in media interviews and his attempts to connect with voters are often half-hearted. He made jokes after posing in a pair of Adidas Sambas, a sports shoe favored by celebrities such as Rihanna and Harry Styles, while promoting his tax policies. “Sunak took an eternally beautiful sneaker and ruined it for everyone,” said British magazine GQ.

Some say Mr. Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs banker whose wife, Akshata Murthy, is the daughter of an Indian tech billionaire, is simply not a recognizable figure. Before he was mocked for wearing Sambas, he was criticized for wearing £490 ($616) Prada suede loafers on a construction site.

Labor Party leader Keir Starmer took aim at Sunak's preference to travel across Britain by plane rather than train. “I'm sure from the perspective of his helicopter everything might look fine,” Starmer said in Parliament, “but that's not the experience of those on the ground.”

Mr Sunak once posed on his desk with a “smart mug” for coffee, selling for £180, an image that stuck in the minds of those who criticized his video of himself pouring milk. “If anyone can afford a £900 cup of tea, it's the Prime Minister,” journalist Robert Hutton wrote on social media.

Others highlighted Sunak's claim that workers would save £900 in lower National Insurance payments it was misleading, because the government had frozen income tax thresholds. With wages adjusted for inflation, people pay higher taxes without taking home extra money.

Sunak didn't spend much time in the political trenches before becoming prime minister. He entered Parliament in 2015 and in just five years became Chancellor of the Exchequer under Prime Minister Boris Johnson. After helping to precipitate Mr Johnson's downfall, he was beaten in his first leadership contest by Ms Truss.

However bumpy his tenure is, Sunak insists that his government has made progress on the economy, immigration and defence, with a pledge to increase British military spending to 2.5% of economic output by 2030.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, Sunak drew a clear distinction between the Tories and Labour. Voters, he said, would have a choice between “a plan versus no plan, courageous, principled action versus U-turns and prevarication, a clear record of results versus a political game.”

Nowhere has Sunak invested more political capital than on immigration. He won passage of a controversial law that would have put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda, and now promises to have the planes in the air by July, before the election.

Rwanda's policy of permanently deporting asylum seekers without hearing their asylum claims is anathema to human rights activists, constitutional jurists and courts. But it is popular among grassroots Conservatives, calculated to win over the same voters in the Midlands and North of England who turned against the Conservatives in local elections.

Traditionally, these areas had been Labor strongholds, earning them the nickname the “red wall” for the party's campaign colour. But in 2019 they switched to the Conservatives because of Johnson's promise to “get Brexit done”. Now, the coalition he put together appears to be fracturing; the red wall is returning to Labour.

Consider Blackpool South, a coastal district in the north, where Labor won a Conservative-held seat in a special election on Thursday. In 2016, the entire Blackpool region voted in favor of Brexit by 67.5%.

Professor Goodwin criticized the Conservatives for not moving more aggressively to reduce immigration. These findings, he said, “underline how much they have lost touch with the post-Brexit political realignment”.

For other analysts, however, Sunak's difficulties are proof that this realignment has always been something of a mirage. In the heart of the Conservative Party in the south – known as the “blue wall” – voters want low taxes and stable government. Some are disappointed by the anti-immigration tone of Rwanda's politics.

These more free market-oriented and socially liberal priorities are often at odds with what many voters in the Midlands and North want. And this has presented Sunak with a dilemma, the political equivalent of squaring the circle.

“He is being asked to pursue two different strategies at the same time,” said Robert Hayward, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and polling expert. “Facing the blue wall on one side and the red wall on the other. And it is not easy to identify a common strategy that addresses both.”

Stefano Castello contributed to the reporting.

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