Eliot Wilson

Can Rishi Sunak get Britain to like him again?

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When Rishi Sunak stood in the rain in Downing Street to announce a general election on 4 July, he made a speech which was unusually personal. Looking back on his steep rise to power – five years ago he was not even a cabinet minister – he spoke of the challenges the country has faced and how they have affected him. Seeing how people responded to the pandemic, he said: ‘I have never been prouder to be British’.

The Prime Minister knows this is a weak point for him

The Prime Minister knows moments like this are a weak point for him. He comes across as a colourless technocrat, a man at home with spreadsheets and account balances but insulated by privilege: he was educated at Winchester, Oxford and Stanford, earned substantial amounts of money in investment management and married the daughter of a billionaire. Fairly or not, many voters think he simply doesn’t understand the issues that affect our everyday lives or the stresses and hardships that people face in a volatile economy and with public services which are under strain.

There is also a character issue. On television, which is the only medium in which most voters will ever encounter him, Sunak can seem superior, tetchy and impatient. There are flashes of exasperation and impatience when he is challenged, a toxic overdose of the ironclad self-belief that any politician must possess. When Tim Shipman reported in the Sunday Times that the PM had exclaimed, ‘Why do people not realise that I’m right?’, it sounded authentic.

Wednesday’s speech tried to address this with commitment and a dash of humility. Casting the pandemic in a pseudo-Churchillian light, he promised: ‘I have never and will never leave the people of this country to face the darkest of days alone’. This was Sunak as leader and saviour, a man who will ‘do everything in my power to provide you with the strongest possible protection I can’.

Sunak acknowledged, however, that the prospect of an election meant voters assessing their options. He pledged to ‘earn your trust’ and made it clear he took nothing for granted. Nevertheless, he would lead the electorate to an ineluctable conclusion. ‘I will prove to you that only a Conservative government led by me will not put our hard-earned economic stability at risk.’

Perhaps the heavy rain which drenched him gave the PM a bedraggled sincerity. It was certainly a serious, rather downbeat speech which presages a long and humourless election campaign: neither Sunak nor Sir Keir Starmer is regarded as a great wit. Those seeking an element of positivity can say that he seems at least to understand that he is not connecting with the public in the way he must do. His net approval rating hovers around -40 and he is less popular than Boris Johnson and even Liz Truss. Even the stiff and orthodox Starmer is seen as more ‘in touch’.

When a politician has a persistent negative image with voters, he or she faces a choice between trying to change it or leaning into it and attempting to make a virtue out of a necessity. For Sunak, the latter course offered little hope, so it seems that he is trying to make people revise their opinion of him. For a young Prime Minister – he has only just turned 44 – who has enjoyed a successful career in the private sector and a swift rise to political power, humility and dogged determination are not easy characteristics to embrace.

In part he suffers from conflicting desires and expectations by the public. In theory, we want capable, successful politicians with proven track records away from Westminster. But we also want leaders who are ‘relatable’ and we recoil from obvious signs of wealth and material prosperity. In uncertain economic circumstances, especially, we are suspicious, even resentful, of a Prime Minister who will never face any kind of financial anxiety.

Sunak is proving, however, that the premiership does not alter a politician’s fundamental character. Boris Johnson was known to be inconsistent, mendacious and self-interested, and proved to be so during his time in Downing Street. No-one believed Liz Truss was other than fiercely self-assured, largely impervious to argument and strangely awkward in personal terms – and so she remained.

Likewise, Rishi Sunak became PM on the understanding that he was rich, confident, the product of an exclusive education and steeped in the world of international finance. He has not sparked a connection with the electorate, lacking the emotional tools to transcend his material privilege. That is not, as such, his fault – he has not changed as a person – but it seems that even he has now recognised that it is an electoral drawback. On its own it might not have been fatal, but added to the other challenges facing the government, it will be very difficult to overcome.

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Written by
Eliot Wilson

Eliot Wilson was a clerk in the House of Commons 2005-16, including on the Defence Committee. He is a member of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

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