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11 April 2024

Rishi Sunak’s shelf life is over

The Prime Minister has failed on his own terms.

By Freddie Hayward

Only 13 per cent of people would choose Rishi Sunak over Keir Starmer to put up a shelf, according to a poll from JL Partners. This is one of the most revealing surveys to come out this year.

The question usually asked by this type of poll is who would you rather have a pint with. That was when people wanted their politicians relatable, chummy and amusing. But this is a sober age. The kids don’t drink any more. Putting up a shelf is a better symbol for the task facing our leaders than lobbing banter across the bar. The metric had to change because of Boris Johnson. He was the archetypal who-would-you-have-a-pint-with? prime minister. But he became a drunken bore who presided over alcohol-fuelled chaos. As well as moving away from the national embarrassment that was partygate, erecting a shelf captures the public’s sense that the country is so broken, ugly and unkempt that it needs some DIY. You can’t put up a shelf pissed.

Enter Sunak. The man doesn’t even drink. He was feted as the efficient technocrat who grappled with the problems left by his entertaining, louche but ineffective predecessors. You might not go to the pub with him but he was the steady hand resolving the country’s problems one nail at a time. Inflation? Nailed down. Growth? He’d worked in the private sector for Christ’s sake! He has an MBA! Of course he could rustle up some economic growth.

But this was the problem. That Sunak was the man for the job meant expectations were high. When he failed to deliver, he could not revert to being the guy you’d go to the pub with. He lost at his own game. Which explains why he is feeling so frustrated. There are growing reports of him shouting at his aides. He aimed to put up the shelf, but is slowly realising that he is actually trying to hammer a nail into rock.

The other reason that Sunak has lost the trust of the shelfless electorate is his opposite number. Keir Starmer – whose father was a toolmaker – sells himself as a pragmatic fixer who will save the nation from slapdash “sticking plaster” politics. “Security” – whether from the threat posed by crooked shelves or flatlining pay – has become a lodestar for Labour’s leadership. Starmer has a Peroni after a hard day’s work, not a suitcase of claret. He stops at red lights when he rides a bike. This is reliability. He’s judged the moment well: ten years of national renewal is a sobering task, one that requires dexterity, not flamboyance. Starmer has been rewarded with 47 per cent of people choosing him to do the fixing.

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The voters’ calculation is simple. They don’t want their prime minister grinning at them from across the bar. They want someone to just put up the bloody shelf. Sunak had promise. But he has outed himself as a poor tradesman. Why not hand the hammer to Starmer?

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

[See also: The Cass review into children’s gender care should shame us all]

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