The rumours around the Tory Party are that the campaigning brains want to plan a presidential push around Rishi Sunak. With the party brand in the mud, their search for electoral salvation will mean putting the Prime Minister to the fore – with more interviews, more access, and overall more Sunakism.
The temptation is an obvious one. Ever since he took office, Sunak’s personal ratings have been higher than those of the party he leads. Promoting him is a chance to capitalise on this, and to distance the current incarnation from the chaos of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. There is, however, one fundamental problem: Sunak can’t campaign.
Sunak has glided to the top of politics without ever really fighting a tough election. He hasn’t had to master strategy or street fighting. Instead he has advanced through charm in the tearoom and a reputation for competence. This means he hasn’t had to learn the hard way, and his natural instincts suggest he is not great at it.
The Prime Minister has little experience of the things that normally hone someone into an election operator. He was never a student politics hack, nor did he involve himself in local politics before pitching for Westminster. While many MPs cut their teeth on a hopeless, safely opposition-held seat, he avoided this apprenticeship, being selected for Richmond in Yorkshire at his first election in 2015. He would have barely broken a sweat winning by 19,000 votes over Ukip, with Labour in third.
Last year’s leadership contest (the first one) was the first real test of his campaigning mettle. It was one he failed spectacularly. Not only did he lose to the ill-fated Truss, but he did so in a style that suggests his ability to persuade an electorate is limited. The dyed-in-the-wool Leaver, a former banker and hedge funder, with a real appetite for austerity left two thirds of the Tory party feeling he was some sort of metropolitan socialist. His core message barely cut through at all.
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Since then, Sunak has only reaffirmed this reputation as a poor campaigner. The more the public has seen of him, the less it has liked him. When he first took power, less than a third thought he was doing a bad job. Now it is nearly 65 per cent. He has lost the love his emergency Covid measures gained him, in a way that bodes poorly for centring a longer election campaign around his personal brand.
Recent media performances have galvanised this impression. Last week he ran the gauntlet of local radio interviews, where presenters unused to prime ministers tend to go in with two-footed tackles. Sunak fared poorly. His demeanour seemed tetchy and his insistence on sticking to the party line, rather than addressing questions, was unsubtle and almost churlish. At the weekend, an appearance on Laura Kuenssberg was similarly poorly received.
Some campaigns can get by with poor media performances. Boris Johnson spent 2019 dodging as many as he could – but he was already in a winning position. A campaign with Sunak at the fore would have to win over an already sceptical public. It’s hard to see him doing this well.
In this election in particular, voters will be looking for empathy for the cost-of-living crisis and an acknowledgement of some of the failings of the Tory Party. Sunak so far has failed to convey either of these. On both, the audience’s presumptions are against him because of his personal wealth and his association with the Tory brand. Yet at times he seems irritable when not getting credit on things such as falling inflation, rather than humbled by the fact that the electorate is even giving him a chance at all. It is not a great approach when you are nearly 20 points behind.
If the Tories are to salvage anything from the next election – a narrow victory, a hung parliament, perhaps even survival – they need a stellar campaign. The fundamentals are against them, with the public tired of more than a decade of Conservative government, the economy weak, and the party looking exhausted. To counter this they need incredible communications and a galvanising, mind-changing campaign.
Focusing on Rishi Sunak might be better than talking about what went before him, but it seems unlikely to be game-changing. He is unproven when it comes to hard campaigns, and all the evidence so far suggests he could undermine the party as much as he helps it.
These days almost every party toys with the idea of a presidential-style campaign. In 2017, one collapsed around Theresa May, while in 2019 the Johnson-fronted approach relied on constraining him to where he performed strongest – in brief interactions with an adoring public, rather than scrutiny. Tory strategists might think the Sunak campaign is the last roll of the dice – but the real risk is that he can’t campaign at all.
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