Rishi Sunak woke up to another set of bad front pages today (27 March) after the worst week of his political career to date. The backlash against his Spring Statement continues, with a stark warning from the typically loyal Sunday Express: “Solve cost of living crisis or you’ll lose election”. If the Chancellor thought he would get a sympathetic hearing from Conservative voters, he was wrong: 63 per cent of the Sunday Express’s readers – the Tory faithful – don’t think the measures he announced on Wednesday went far enough to address the cost of living crisis, and two thirds of them said they are struggling to pay for heating and energy. The Chancellor’s net approval rating has dropped to an all-time low of -4 points, according to Opinium’s latest poll. Is this the week that ruined Sunak’s chances of ever entering Number 10?
The strange reality is that there is a huge disconnect between the reaction to the Spring Statement inside and outside the Conservative parliamentary party. While the reaction externally has been terrible – a media backlash from even supportive newspapers, and terrible polling – the reaction among Conservative MPs has been far more muted. Indeed, if you were gauging the reaction to the Spring Statement using conversations with Conservative MPs, the difference between the vague contentment of most Tory backbenchers and the fierce backlash of the front pages would give you whiplash.
Take one text I received on Wednesday evening, from a Tory MP who has had grave concerns about the cost of living crisis and who has had no qualms about criticising the government in recent months and years. “I’m really happy,” they said. “Raising the [National Insurance] threshold by 3k makes a huge huge difference. Very pleased with the fuel duty cut.”
It was the same story from other MPs and at the 1922 committee that evening – only a few low-tax Tories were voicing concerns or withholding praise, and mutterings that the measures may not be enough to meet the full scale of the crisis ahead were muted. Then came the full force of the public outcry, to the great surprise of everyone – including Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, as Katy Balls reports.
While public perceptions of Sunak may have changed, his standing within the Conservative parliamentary party has seen less of a sudden transformation. The truth is that although he is seen as a front-runner to eventually succeed Boris Johnson, there have been doubts among Tory MPs for months about whether he is up to the task. A relatively new MP, Sunak didn’t have enough of a base within the party to launch a leadership challenge during partygate, even though he is understood to have considered it, and his manoeuvring during that period made naturally supportive Conservatives doubt his political instincts. While Sunak has admirers within the parliamentary party, he doesn’t have a devoted bloc who will stick with him no matter what.
Leadership rivalries continue to play out, too, even if partygate has now been temporarily forgotten. Liz Truss and Ben Wallace have put very public pressure on Sunak to increase defence spending, which Sunak has declined to provide, and briefings against the Chancellor from inside the cabinet mean he looks increasingly isolated at the top of government.
But there is also far more sympathy among Conservative MPs for his situation as the post-pandemic Chancellor. His view that the furlough scheme has set public expectations of government intervention far too high is shared across the parliamentary party. Every Conservative, Sunak fan or not, discusses the borrowing necessitated by the pandemic as an “invidious position” for the party to be in, and sympathises with the difficult choices Sunak faces. The measures in the Spring Statement, too, poll well and are popular among the party on their own terms. The problem is what wasn’t included, and the feeling that he didn’t go far enough.
While a mutual suspicion remains in Johnson and Sunak’s relationship post-partygate, the two are working more closely together than ever, with Sunak now in attendance at the daily morning meetings in No 10. If anything, some in cabinet worry Sunak has too much influence over the political direction taken by the government.
Facing tough criticism from cabinet colleagues and a mauling in the press and from the public, the big question for Sunak’s future is how his standing among Conservative MPs will change. They had far more sympathy with Sunak’s statement on Wednesday than his cabinet rivals, the media or the general public. But Tory MPs don’t exist in a bubble, and will be influenced by the media coverage and feedback they receive from their constituents this weekend. In the unofficial contest to succeed Boris Johnson, Tory MPs are the crucial electorate, and they are still undecided. But what difference will a weekend make? And even if they stay on the fence about Sunak for now, what will months of pain do to their voters?