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11 April 2024

Why Rishi Sunak is struggling as Prime Minister

The problem isn’t just a bad inheritance – it’s his lack of experience.

By David Gauke

Removing Rishi Sunak as party leader and Prime Minister would be a terrible mistake for the Tories. I have made the case before and I stand by it. There is no likelihood that the transition to yet another leader would go smoothly, that any such new leader would benefit from a surge in public support, or that the electorate would conclude anything other than the Conservative Party was a chaotic and unmanageable shambles (even more than it already does). Defeat may be inevitable under Sunak but another coup would only make the defeat worse.

That is not to say, however, that all is well with Sunak’s premiership. He polls badly. Too many of his media performances are uncomfortable, even cringe-worthy. On occasions, he comes across as tetchy in interviews. Many Tories worry how he will cope with the heightened scrutiny of a general election campaign.

The contrast could not be greater with his standing when he first drew the public’s attention. As the chancellor during the Covid outbreak, Sunak took his one opportunity to make a good first impression. He was on top of his brief, empathetic, and provided clear leadership – a reassuring presence at a time of crisis. Sunak was soon the most popular chancellor for 15 years. Cynics said that it was easy to be popular when handing out hundreds of billions of pounds; those who knew Sunak well argued that the public was seeing the real him – clever, hard-working, determined to do the best for the country.

Both observations were true but even Sunak’s reputation as an effective administrator has taken a hit of late. In his time at the Treasury, one could already hear complaints that he was too engrossed in the detail. Reports of the numerate chancellor producing his own spreadsheets were briefed to the press and we were all supposed to be impressed, not least by the contrast drawn with his neighbour on Downing Street. Officials, meanwhile, wondered if there were better things for Sunak to be doing.

Such meticulous focus on the detail may be admirable, but it is not a sustainable way of working as Prime Minister. He has had the occasional triumph, such as the Windsor framework, and the subsequent Northern Ireland trade deal, where his personal contribution was vital. This issue showed him at his best – understanding a complex issue, winning the trust of different parties, reaching a conclusion and backing his judgement.

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Too often, however, there are complaints from ministers and officials that Sunak’s focus on the detail is a means of ducking a decision. Even on relatively marginal issues, there are Whitehall stories of a two-page submission asking for a decision being returned by the Prime Minister’s office with a request for a four-page submission, which is then subsequently returned with a request for a ten-page submission with supporting annexes. No 10 becomes a bottleneck for decisions; civil service old hands are reminded of Gordon Brown’s premiership.

Then there are the areas of policy in which he is not interested, such as foreign affairs. Most prime ministers find themselves increasingly drawn to this arena. David Cameron was no exception and Sunak is happy to delegate responsibility to him. In normal times, this would be less conspicuous but with the war in Gaza and the war in Ukraine so prominent, it really is striking.

In criticising Sunak’s performance as Prime Minister, there two mitigating factors that should be taken into account.  

The first is that Sunak has served during a period that any prime minister would find difficult. For a variety of reasons – not all of which can be blamed on the government – living standards have suffered in recent years and the public finances are under strain. A party in power for 14 years is bound to be unpopular. Sunak should have distanced himself far more from his predecessors but, such is the dysfunctional and divided nature of his party, that doing so would have come with great risks. He has never really looked like a leader, but the Conservative Party appears incapable of being led.

The second factor – too often neglected – is Sunak’s inexperience. He is not an instinctive politician which means that political experience is all the more necessary. A career path that involves spending years as a party apparatchik or special adviser attracts plenty of criticism, but it is a good way to learn how Westminster and the media work. A long apprenticeship as a parliamentary candidate, perhaps fighting an unwinnable seat, provides campaigning experience and an insight into the thinking of party activists and voters on the doorstep. And years spent as a minister should bring an understanding of Whitehall and a broad range of issues. It also usually involves a thickening of the skin.

Sunak, in contrast, had little political experience before being selected as a parliamentary candidate in October 2014. A little over eight years later, he was Prime Minister. This is in part a testament to his abilities; he was always going to be promoted rapidly. He has no cause for complaint, but it has perhaps left him exposed, unable to address weaknesses away from intense scrutiny and to grow into the role. As the life span of political careers shorten, future politicians may face similar difficulties.

Like his predecessor as the MP for Richmond, William Hague, political success perhaps came too early in Sunak’s career. Hague – more steeped in politics – had a second chance and was an outstanding foreign secretary. Sunak might not get such an opportunity.

[See also: The West’s useful idiots]

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