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Rishi Sunak is not very good at politics

The Prime Minister’s gaffes and poor media management are weakening his already precarious position.

By Freddie Hayward

Rishi Sunak is not very good at politics. This has been clear for a while. Any warm feeling among voters after last week’s 2p National Insurance cut was probably short-lived. Lee Anderson – the bolshie Ashfield MP and erstwhile Labour member – flipped to Reform UK on Monday, slamming his former party for losing control of the country. In the eyes of MPs, this was a failure to keep him onside.

Then yesterday, No 10 decided not to condemn Tory cash machine Frank Hester’s alleged comments about Diane Abbott as racist, after the Guardian reported him as saying in 2019 that she made “[you] want to hate all black women”. This was not sustainable. Last night, No 10 reversed its position, admitting the comments were in fact racist. But the party would not return his donations.

The episode convinced some MPs that this No 10 couldn’t win an election in North Korea. You know it’s bad when only Sunak ultras (Kevin Hollinrake and Mel Stride) are sent to absorb the flak from the media. But is this the beginning of the end for Sunak? Will he be deposed before the general election?

Here are the reasons to think he is safe. The calculation has been that Sunak is the best candidate in a pool of 348 Tory MPs. Unlike when Boris Johnson was prime minister, there is no standout, blazingly obvious alternative to take over. (By the way, for many rebels back then, it was Sunak.) Another calculation is that removing a fourth leader in five years would make the party look even more ridiculous in voters’ eyes. Which is true. The third reason is that although Sunak is bad at politics, he is not a Johnsonian liar or delusional Trussite. Many MPs still think he is a “decent” man who was dealt a bad hand. Finally, Sunak wields the best stick with which to keep his MPs in line: the power to call a general election.

But the gaffes and poor media management are piling up. The fall in his personal poll ratings means that he has become as unpopular as his party at a time when the Conservatives are synonymous with decline. “It’s a total shambles,” one MP told me. Sunak is failing on nearly every front. Which invites the following question into MPs’ minds: what is the point of him?

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A large crop of Tory MPs is no longer invested, interested or engaged with the next election. They know their majorities aren’t big enough and that the Red Wall has been lost. They are looking for jobs, or have already secured them. This group has little interest in agitating for another prime minister.

It is the strivers, the post-election conspirators and ambitious hangers-on who are pushing for change. Some believe making Keir Starmer a one-term PM requires a decent number of seats in the next parliament. Others speak romantically about saving the most successful party in the democratic world from destruction and irrelevance.

Such anger increases the chances of an earlier election. One Tory MP thinks that a May poll is now more likely because, for No 10, that is the only way Sunak leads the party into the election. “My fear is we’ll just collapse like a jelly into a May election,” they said. A heart-warming prospect for Labour.

Whether or not a coup takes place, the realisation that Sunak could be leading the party to the scrapyard is resonating with more and more Tory MPs. But every time they contemplate ditching the Prime Minister in order to make the situation better, they make it worse. No 10 cannot begin to win back voters when its MPs cannibalise all of the strategies it puts forward to do that. And then when it flails in the polls, Tories grow more restless. This vicious circle looks like it will end in electoral defeat or a new leader. Or both.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Jeremy Hunt’s Budget was a work of fiction]

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