In the spring of 2020, as Britain faced its darkest hour, an unlikely hero emerged to save the day. Rishi Sunak had been chancellor for all of six weeks when the economy went into lockdown, elevated from back-bench obscurity by the unexpected resignation of Sajid Javid. But cometh the hour, cometh the man, and suddenly a guy who even seasoned Westminster watchers would struggle to have identified a few weeks earlier was the most popular politician in Britain.
“He’s been dubbed ‘a style hero’,” explained a profile in Tatler so breathless you could almost hear lips being moistened. “[He’s] now entered popular consciousness as ‘dishy Rishi’… and is touted as the next prime minister.” The BBC graphics department went one better, producing one portraying Sunak as Superman, hugging an elderly woman who came up to his shoulder – a decision which suggests that somebody, somewhere, knew neither that the BBC is meant to be impartial, nor how tall Sunak is.
At around the same time, Sunak’s Instagram game, too, went stratospheric. Before that spring, Sunak’s posts on the social media site looked like those of any other politician (or, come to that, any other early middle-aged dad). There was Rishi standing awkwardly before a waterfall; Rishi awkwardly waving a blurry Union flag; a photograph of a bored-looking Larry the cat, an attempt to communicate, one assumes, that despite being a mere junior minister Rishi was sometimes allowed into Downing Street. Around the time of the 2020 Budget, however, something changed. Policy announcements begin to appear, block capitals in bold colours; the composition of the photographs improves, each shot suggesting action or thoughtfulness or some other characteristic one might want in a leader; Rishi is no longer seen in shorts.
This shift was no coincidence. That aforementioned Tatler piece, written, unsurprisingly, by somebody named Annabel, invited us to “Meet Cass Horowitz: The man behind Rishi Sunak ‘the brand’”, and “a tried and tested social media guru”. Two years later, when Sunak finally made his bid for Downing Street, the papers described Horowitz in language so similar that one starts to suspect it was taken from Horowitz’s LinkedIn profile. (The Telegraph: “the special adviser widely seen as the brains behind ‘Brand Rishi’”; the Evening Standard: “a social media whizz… credited with transforming Sunak’s digital persona”.) Social media, the savviest Westminster watchers in the British media agreed, had been key to the rise of Britain’s next prime minister.
In the event, alas, Sunak was not the next prime minister, but the next but one. Glossy campaign videos were not, in the end, enough to win over Tory members, meaning we all had to endure Liz Truss first.
There have been other, more recent signs that slaying on the ’gram may not actually qualify one to run a country. The carefully composed photographs – Rishi greeting world leaders, Rishi greeting children, Rishi looking solemn at the Cenotaph or learning to lay a brick – have continued. So have the glossy videos, like the one that the Telegraph seemed bafflingly excited to report had been “literally put together in two days” back in 2022 (“They are f***ing good,” some anonymous source who definitely wasn’t Horowitz said of the social media team). Yet today Dishy Rishi continues to trail Dreary Keir in the polls, and rather than levelling up his party’s poll rating, time in office has merely levelled down his own.
Worse, there are signs of exactly the sort of avoidable comms errors you’d expect a team of slick PR gurus to prevent. Settling on a new campaign line (“Labour will take you back to square one”) that the opposition might be tempted to steal with a better spin (“We’ll take you back to square one!”). Going to Manchester to scrap a new train line to Manchester, after pretending for a week that that wasn’t what you were going to do. (Although last week’s news, revealed in the Financial Times, that what is now left of the HS2 project will actually reduce the number of seats between London and Manchester is, to be fair, a great punchline.)
Even Sunak’s latest slick campaigning tool, in which voters “get a personal video from the Prime Minister”, suggests that maybe the comms team are not what we thought they were. A widget on the Conservative Party website invites voters to enter their contact details and tell the party whether their priority is the NHS, the economy or immigration. This transparent attempt to gather email addresses resulted in an automatically generated “personal video from the Prime Minister” going viral, in which Sunak addresses “Nigel” and explains that he too was worried about immigration. A true social media guru, one might think, would have predicted the fun that some troll, somewhere, would have had with this – and would have understood that the existence of a viral video in which the Prime Minister appeared to say he shared Nigel Farage’s priorities for Britain would be a net negative for Brand Rishi.
It is at least possible that political reporters to whom Instagram – a poorly understood source of unimaginable power – is alchemy may have overestimated its impact on the world beyond the bubble. It’s true that social media helps to define an unknown politician, or spread a message that your voters actually want to hear. But it’s no substitute for decent political instincts or competent government, and as things stand, No 10 offers neither.
Those who work in political comms, as opposed to merely consuming it, suggest there may have been another reason for the way in which Brand Rishi originally exploded onto the scene: the fact that as chancellor he spent 2020, against his own ideological instincts, handing out money as if his political career depended on it. That was, after all, how Rishi had ended up as a cartoon Superman on an ostensibly impartial news website in the first place. A YouGov poll from 2020, which that Tatler profile of Cass Horowitz referred to, gave Sunak “the best rating for a chancellor since Gordon Brown (which perhaps illustrates how rapidly the tables can turn)”. That line has proved more prophetic than it was perhaps intended to be. Of course, it might be unfair to pin all this on one over-hyped social media guru. Alchemy doesn’t really exist. You can’t spin lead into gold.