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20 January 2022

Why Rishi Sunak wouldn’t be a silver bullet for the Tories

As prime minister, Sunak would struggle to maintain his popularity when faced with a cost-of-living crisis and a toxic Tory brand.

By Ben Walker

Will Boris Johnson cling on as Prime Minister? Ask the public and you’ll find that 63 per cent (according to YouGov) want him out and that most expect he’ll be gone this year.

Were Johnson to depart before the next general election, it would be 200,000 Tory members choosing the next prime minister, with activist polls making Rishi Sunak the favourite. This makes sense. Sunak is the most popular politician in the country and the only prominent Tory who polls well with the public. But the Chancellor’s support base is more fragile than it appears. Only 20 per cent of those voters who approve of him, for instance, “strongly approve” of him and his numbers have been drifting with each month.

Public approval of Rishi Sunak has fallen 20pts in two years

Chancellor Sunak was a non-entity to the public until he announced the introduction of the furlough scheme on 17 March 2020. Further measures such as “Eat Out to Help Out” boosted his popularity and earned him the title “Dishy Rishi” from some of his more creative supporters.

This is how Sunak became Britain’s most recognisable – and most popular – politician. And therein lies the problem. The Covid chancellor became popular during Covid. His “Midas touch” reputation is built on his actions during the coronavirus crisis. He has not been tested under normal political conditions, and his economically austere instincts may make measures such as the furlough scheme the exception rather than the rule. 

But first impressions matter, and the public do talk of him as “that clever man who helped us out during Covid”. Were he to enter Downing Street, there is no doubt he’d enjoy a political honeymoon. As with Gordon Brown and Theresa May, voters would project their own desires on to him. Sunak will make a rousing speech about the need to govern in the interests of the “just managing” class. By virtue of not being Boris Johnson, he will calm the nerves of most Tory waverers and enjoy stronger appeal in Scotland. But Sunak’s positives risk being overcome by the negatives.

What gave Johnson his electoral edge is that he once polled better in marginal seats than in the country at large. He was never a well-liked figure but he was liked “well enough” where it mattered. This gave the Tories the opportunity to reach new voters and to win seats they’d never won in modern electoral history. In 2019, few people in the so-called Red Wall were voting for the Tory party. They were voting for the Boris Johnson party.

This political realignment began long before Johnson but these seats boast voters who turned out in large numbers for him in 2019. It would be helpful, therefore, if these voters felt able to rally around his successor.

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And there is no guarantee Sunak will motivate them as much as Johnson did. Polls today show Sunak is less popular in marginal seats than in the country at large.

Interestingly, Sunak polls best in seats not represented by a Conservative MP. The question is less whether he can retain the Red Wall but more whether he can attract new voters to back the Tories at the next election. But Sunak will be no silver bullet. The problem for him is the Labour poll leads aren’t only due to Johnson being damaged goods – the Tory brand is now damaged too. When respondents were asked in a recent survey, for instance, how they would vote in a general election if Rishi Sunak was Tory leader, Labour still enjoyed a respectable lead.

In my view, Sunak’s popularity is situational rather than intrinsic. His well-reported reluctance to provide new funding for Michael Gove’s “levelling-up” initiatives suggest he’s not as loyal to the “Vote Leave” agenda as Johnson and Gove are. And inheriting Johnson’s job at this time would also mean inheriting the cost-of-living crisis facing voters owing to higher inflation, tax rises and rising energy bills. Voters’ economic attitudes have also shifted leftwards since 2013. A Cameroon agenda may have worked in 2010 and 2015 but I’m not sure it will in 2022.

It's these factors that make me unsure Sunak would be electoral gold. Tory MPs were reported to talk of Theresa May as “Mummy May” when she was riding high in the polls. No doubt similarly cringeworthy remarks will be made of “Dishy Rishi” if he ascends to Downing Street, but his honeymoon likely won’t last half as long. The trouble for the Tories is no longer simply Boris Johnson. It’s the Tory party itself.

[See also: David Gauke: How my party lost its way]

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