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3 April 2024

Rishi Sunak’s reverse Midas touch

Gripped by poll fever, the Prime Minister has cast about for a golden vote-winning policy – damaging his prospects at every turn.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The only poll that counts is the one on election day. That’s been Rishi Sunak’s mantra as survey after survey shows an electorate itching to give the Conservatives not so much a good kicking as a knockout blow. It is increasingly difficult for those around Sunak to maintain this level of detachment given what the psephological crystal ball is telling him and the party. One recent shock came over the Easter weekend: a mega-poll, carried out by Survation and published in the Sunday Times, predicting the Tories’ worst-ever election result. The poll predicted they would win fewer than 100 seats. Sunak’s own constituency in Richmond, North Yorkshire, was at risk.

Everyone knows things are bad for the Tories, but it is hard to process quite how bad. Even with the usual caveats applied – at least 15 per cent of voters are undecided, the trend for polls to narrow closer to polling day – the next general election could be an extinction-level event for the party. The kind of humiliation last seen when the Liberals were still a major force in British politics, 40 per cent of men and 100 per cent of women were not allowed to vote and the telephone was considered high tech.

Understandably, the mood in the party is one of alarm. Conservative MPs are either checking out completely or launching frenetic campaigns to cling on to their seats so they can have a say in how the party is shaped after the election. Forensic attention is being paid to divining who will be left after the defeat and what that means for the next leadership contest. The seats of several contenders are at risk (Penny Mordaunt, Robert Jenrick, Priti Patel). The Tory tug of war over what exactly the party stands for (Thatcherite buccaneerism? Small-c conservatism? One Nation paternalism?) is perpetual.

Amid the panic, the Conservatives might do well to consider how everything deteriorated to this point. I don’t just mean rehashing the consequences of David Cameron-era austerity, Theresa May’s Brexit stalemate, the excruciating Boris Johnson partygate saga and Liz Truss’s ill-fated turn in office. I mean focusing on more proximate causes. The immediate past. The present, even.

After all, Sunak was eased into Downing Street on the assumption he could make a bad situation at least slightly better. Eighteen months later, even his allies quietly acknowledge it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be doing worse. There is a debate – in the parliamentary party and even within No 10 – about whether the chaos of a third change of leader in this parliament might be preferable to the damage caused by the incumbent limping on. The consistency with which Sunak makes a decision only for it to backfire in the polls is remarkable – and would be remarked upon far more were the Tories not so distracted by looming electoral disaster.

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The “Sunak touch” (a phrase muttered darkly in Westminster by those who note that everything the PM gets his hands on rapidly deteriorates) may seem less worthy of examination than the broader narrative of Conservative mismanagement over the past 14 years. But it’s worth asking why it is that a man who entered office because he was widely considered to be an asset for his party is instead dragging it down. Yes, Sunak was dealt a tough hand. Yes, any leader would have struggled with the Johnson and Truss legacies. But something about the way he approaches being Prime Minister seems especially detrimental to the party. And sadly, for a man who claims such things don’t count, it has an awful lot to do with polls.

“Spreadsheet Sunak” is gripped by poll fever. You can, I was told by a Tory strategist, trace back nearly every decision he has made since becoming Prime Minister – from making “stopping the boats” one of his five 2023 priorities to cancelling HS2 rail – to what voters say they want in polls and focus groups. Rather than trying to bring voters with him, our chronically insecure PM has been chasing them, spending his year and a half in office searching for the perfect policy or phrase, like a magic spell, that will transform his fortunes.

This has had the opposite effect: a recent focus group of 2019 Conservative voters branded the Prime Minister “weak”, “untrustworthy” and “a waste of space”. Sunak’s absence of leadership has debilitated his government, which has a vanishingly small policy agenda and little authority to enact it. The reversal in March on planning, rental reform and leaseholds is the most recent evidence that his administration does not have the will or competence to wield power. Voters who once supported the Tories are asking what the point of them is if they can’t get anything done.

Shortly before Easter, a veteran Tory activist pointed me in the direction of a CS Lewis quote: “Comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” This, he argued, summed up Sunak’s fundamental mistake: by fixating on the comfort of getting the polls to move, he is forgetting that if you get the policy right, the polls may well follow.

This is a lesson about decisive, confident leadership – one that Labour could learn from. A focus group can help you shape your communication strategy, but it cannot show you how to govern. Voters must be won over, not chased. Lash yourself to the polls, and they will destroy you.

[See also: Ousting Rishi Sunak would make a bad situation worse]

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This article appears in the 03 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Fragile Crown