Almost a year into his role as prime minister, Rishi Sunak faces a shrinking timeframe to achieve an increasingly challenging endeavour: securing the Conservatives’ continuation in power during the upcoming election.
He will conclude the party’s annual conference with a keynote address next Wednesday, aiming to galvanise the ruling Tories for the formidable task ahead in the anticipated contest, scheduled for some time next year.
The Labour party, in opposition since 2010 but enjoying double-digit poll leads throughout his tenure, will follow suit a week later.
Sunak, 43, who also trails Labour leader Keir Starmer in personal popularity polling, needs little encouragement to get on an election footing, following a recent flurry of policy speeches, announcements and leaks seen as highly populist.
They include announcing a brake on some of the UK’s climate measures, which postponed the end of new petrol or diesel car sales by five years and the compulsory replacement of gas-fired boilers.
Sunak blamed the “unacceptable” costs to families grappling with a severe cost-of-living crisis, while vowing to “change the way our politics works” and make “different decisions”.
Meanwhile on Monday (25) interior minister Suella Braverman attacked the United Nations Refugee Convention, a cornerstone of international refugee protection since 1951, as unfit for the modern era.
It comes as Britain seeks to stop tens of thousands of migrants arriving each year aboard small boats on its southeastern shores from northern France.
Last month, the government also announced measures to curb the use of gender-neutral toilets, which critics said was a blatant attempt to fire up the Conservatives’ grassroots over a so-called “culture war” issue.
“There is a degree of populism about what he’s doing,” said Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London and author of a new book on post-Brexit Tory infighting.
“I think he has to do that, he feels and his advisors feel, to give them any chance of winning the next election.”
– ‘Horribly difficult’ –
Sunak — a multi-millionaire former investment bank and hedge fund worker of Indian heritage — has enjoyed a swift political rise in a country where reaching the pinnacle typically takes at least a decade as an MP.
He was only first elected as a lawmaker in 2015, became a government minister three years later and rose to the role of finance minister under ex-premier Boris Johnson in 2020 aged just 39. By 42, he was prime minister.
A staunch Brexiteer throughout, he has proclaimed himself a traditional low-tax, low-spending Conservative, but remained somewhat enigmatic to some political commentators.
“I’ve never heard him justify his vote for Brexit”, said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London.
“When he’s been a minister, it’s been impossible to figure out what his deep beliefs were because he was a minister in a time of crisis.”
Despite his professed admiration for former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who espoused minimising public spending, he handed out billions in financial support during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, after the chaos of Johnson’s scandal-plagued three-year tenure and the financial storm caused by the short-lived Liz Truss administration, Sunak has sought to project prudence and discipline in his first year in Downing Street.
– Miracle –
Plaudits credit him with returning British politics to a degree of normality, but critics — including within his own party — see a scheming opportunist.
“He hasn’t really made any terrible mistakes,” noted Mark Garnett, a UK politics specialist at the University of Lancaster.
“On the world stage you can tell why Mr Sunak has improved Britain’s very bad reputation because people will say this is a serious politician,” he added.
Branding him “an extremely flexible, pragmatic operator”, Garnett said Sunak’s main aim clearly remained keeping the Tories in power.
“He has… between now and the election to appeal to the people who have now abandoned the Conservative Party, try to bring them back on board, he added.
“So, he has got a horribly difficult act to pull off.”
For Bale, with Britain’s economy still rocky and the cherished public health service “collapsing”, it would take a “miracle” for Sunak and his Conservatives to prevail.