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4 December 2023

It only gets worse for Rishi Sunak

The Prime Minister has never been more unpopular among Tory members and voters. What now?

By Rachel Cunliffe

Two stories this morning must have caused Rishi Sunak to grimace into his yoghurt and blueberries.

The first is the monthly cabinet league table published by the website ConservativeHome. December’s poll of Conservative members puts the Prime Minister’s net satisfaction rating at -25.4 per cent – his lowest to date, and significantly behind any of his cabinet colleagues. While it’s impossible to measure Sunak against Liz Truss, as the only ConHome league table of her short premiership came out before the full economic calamity became clear, his rating is lower than Boris Johnson’s was days before an avalanche of cabinet resignations forced him to quit.

Johnson’s fall from grace was more dramatic given his long-standing popularity with the Conservative membership (which Sunak has never managed to match). And besides, an unweighted survey that only includes Tory members is relatively easy to dismiss. Much harder to stomach, though, is the latest analysis from JL Partners, which has studied a year’s worth of polling from different companies and examined where 2019 Conservative voters are now. And the answer, for a sizeable number, is not with Rishi Sunak.

Of those who voted Tory four years ago, just 59 per cent say they would back them again now. Here, we can compare Sunak to Truss, and it’s not pretty: “Conservative 2019 vote retention is now at an even lower level than after Liz Truss’s mini-Budget last autumn,” the report states. Retention stood at 74 per cent during the summer 2022 Tory leadership contest and 68 per cent under Truss in October 2022.

You could argue that not all of this is Sunak’s fault. Almost any prime minister would be struggling to retain popularity during the biggest fall in living standards for 70 years. But what is particularly damning for Sunak is how, according to JL Partners’ estimations, the party has lost around 520,000 votes in the two months since the Conservative conference.

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That was the conference, remember, that was meant to “reset” Sunak’s premiership. The idea was to pivot away from a technocratic focus on the economy (consistently ranked as the most important voter priority) in favour of a more populist approach: cancelling the northern arm of the HS2 rail network, U-turning on net zero measures, talking tough on migration (or, at least, allowing Suella Braverman to do so) and branding Sunak a “change” candidate overturning a “30-year consensus”. Since then, the promised reallocation of HS2 funding to “left behind” areas has failed to shift the polls; migration has gone from a political headache to a crisis; and Sunak has appointed David Cameron – one of the former leaders he defined himself against in his conference speech – as Foreign Secretary.

The Prime Minister’s strategy in the second half of this year has been defined by chaos, lurching from one position to the next without much in the way of guiding ideology. This seems to have had the twin effect of allowing space on the right for Reform UK to lure former Tory voters (15 per cent of 2019 Conservatives say they intend to vote for the populist party, previously led by Nigel Farage), without halting the trend of defections to Labour (currently at 17 per cent, a similar level to the start of the Truss era). In short, Sunak’s frequent “resets” appear to have simply drawn attention to areas of Conservative interest where the party is failing (migration), while alienating moderates even further.

The situation would be a little better if Sunak enjoyed strong core support from the Tory base – enough to rally members and show he has a grip on his party, if not the country. But as the ConHome poll shows, he doesn’t.

What does this mean for the prospect of a leadership challenge or early election? Probably not much. The polling numbers won’t change Tory MPs’ fundamental calculation that, as weak as Sunak is, the party’s fortunes won’t necessarily be improved by removing him. Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt remain the grassroots’ darling but, following her sacking, the ConHome league table no longer includes Suella Braverman, who came fifth in November. (James Cleverly, the other perceived front-runner, is only 22nd.) The Tory right is deeply divided, as is the parliamentary party. The next leadership contest will be fractious and a year away from an election that looks almost unwinnable, none of the contenders or their factions have much incentive to trigger one early.

Meanwhile, the flutters of speculation about a May election, prompted by the announcement in the Autumn Statement that the National Insurance tax cut will take effect from January, have faded after Tory immigration divides overshadowed any positive news. No prime minister ever calls an election they appear likely to lose unless they have no choice. 

But no one should assume that this apparent stalemate equates to calm. Sunak is in serious trouble. There’s just not much anyone is going to do about it right now.

[See also: The Tories have no good reason to deny us an election]

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