Will Rishi Sunak Revive the Tories?
Back in the distant days of July when writing about the Truss vs Sunak leadership contest I said that if I’d had a vote I’d have gone for Sunak. This was because “Truss may turn out to be better than everyone expects, but there seems to me a much bigger risk of a catastrophic outcome for the party”. Whereas: “I can’t see much chance of [Sunak] winning a majority at the next election….the fundamentals are just too bad, but I can see him winning 250 seats and putting the Tories in a position to present a serious challenge to a minority Labour Government.”
Well the catastrophic outcome happened with the result that Sunak is now in charge despite the Tory membership disagreeing with me over the summer. The circumstances of his ascent are in some ways helpful to Sunak. The dramatic failure of Truss, and the brief threat of Boris Johnson’s return, has chastened his MPs. The sheer relief on their faces over the past week is an indicator that most will behave for the time being. On top of that the implosion of Truss’s economic plans, which Sunak had heavily criticised (despite some desperate tax cutting pledges of his own), makes it much easier for him to impose his agenda. Had he tried to stick with his economic plan in September he’d had faced widespread criticism from Truss’s supporters and right-wing papers. Now we’ve seen the consequences of large unfunded tax cuts he will get an easier ride.
The flip side is that actual economic conditions have been worsened by the Truss administration’s failure. While markets have calmed, and interest rate expectations have fallen, the OBR forecasts are still looking grim. Having defined himself by fiscal rectitude he will now have to follow through with a budget that substantially increases taxes and sets out another round of austerity. This combined with ongoing high inflation, the beginnings of a global recession, and ever more apparent failings in core public services, is not an obvious recipe for popularity.
The initial polls since he took over show a small shift back towards the Conservatives but with Labour leads still in the mid to high 20 point range. Sunak himself is far more popular than his party – and is more or less even with Starmer on the “best Prime Minister” question. The reason for this divergence is that he does much better than Truss or Johnson with liberal/remain voters but they are not currently saying they’ll vote Conservative. My guess is that the numbers will converge. Sunak will become less popular with liberal voters as he takes decisions designed to appease the right of his party but the Labour lead will continue to fall as things calm down from the craziness of the past few months. But even if that Labour lead drops to 15pts or so it would still be a dire electoral position. He needs at least a 2 point lead in an election to salvage a small majority.
In the rest of this post I’ll look at Sunak’s new ministerial team, the prospects for the 17th November statement, and the likely wider approach to policy and politics from Prime Minister’s new team, to assess whether this is at all possible.