Patrick O’Flynn Patrick O’Flynn

Rishi Sunak only has himself to blame for the rise of Reform

Rishi Sunak (Credit: Getty images)

By their rugby analogies shall ye know them: when Boris Johnson was asked about his chance of becoming prime minister, he spoke of the ‘the ball coming loose at the back of the scrum’. That characterisation sought to disguise his burning passion to reach the top. Getting to be PM would be the result of a mere happy turn of events and not something he would ever plot for, he implied. No doubt this will have prompted hollow laughter among those previously exposed to the white heat of his ambition.

Sunak has confirmed himself as being absolutely terrible at politics

But it turns out that Rishi Sunak’s capacity for self-delusion is still greater. For he has just told William Hague that inheriting the keys to Number 10 when he did amounted to ‘the worst hospital pass’. 

Given that Sunak inherited the post of PM rather in the way that Henry Tudor inherited the throne of England, one is inclined to withhold sympathy over the trials and tribulations it has subsequently brought him.

The Prime Minister appears to be in tetchy, self-pitying mode more generally, reportedly reacting to his sinking poll ratings by asking aides: ‘Am I not very good at this?’ No doubt the truthful answer – that no, he isn’t – was not forthcoming from any of the chaps in the bunker.

Of the five key tests he set for himself 15 months ago, only the one to halve inflation has been fully met. The other economic metrics, on growth and public sector debt, are fighting for their lives in intensive care – lucky to have found a berth there given that even Sunak admits that another key pledge on cutting NHS backlogs has been badly missed. Then there was the totemic promise to ‘stop the boats’ and to ‘strain every sinew’ to do so.

After he prematurely heralded a weather-assisted reduction of a third in small boat crossings in 2023, so far in 2024 they are running at an all-time high. And neither has he strained every sinew on this front, having turned his nose up at suggested amendments to strengthen his latest legislation on the purported safety of Rwanda as a deterrent destination.

So a leader who invited us to judge him on five crucial yardsticks that he chose for himself has come up very short on four of them and unsurprisingly the British public have concluded that he is ‘not very good at this’, to use his own terminology.

Then there are the yardsticks that he did not choose, but that the traditionally Tory-leaning sections of the British public have always held dear: ensuring low legal immigration levels and tough custodial sentences for criminals being two of the main ones. Here he didn’t even bother trying, presiding over all-time record migration volumes in defiance of a 2019 manifesto whose pledges he also ‘inherited’ and then deciding to let hardened criminals out of jail earlier and earlier rather than expand the prison estate.

As well as being not very good at governing, Sunak has confirmed himself as being absolutely terrible at politics. When he became PM, the Reform party on his right flank had an average four per cent poll rating. Now it has hit an average of 12 per cent and even scored a 16 in the latest YouGov poll, which also showed it leading the Tories among men and across the north of England.

This is largely a self-inflicted wound given Sunak’s medley of mistakes when it comes to dealing with the sensibilities of right-wing voters. The most egregious of these was to sack Suella Braverman and restore David Cameron to senior cabinet rank in November. That was followed up by carelessly losing his ‘red wall rottweiler’ Lee Anderson to Reform earlier this month.

Insipid offerings designed to assuage voters who agreed with Braverman and Anderson about everything starting with the letter ‘I’ – immigration, integration, Islamism and invasion via Channel dinghy – have backfired, further raising the salience of the issues without offering credible solutions.

No wonder the influential Conservative MP Danny Kruger has just been audio-recorded – without his knowledge – declaring that Reform’s analysis of Tory failings is largely correct.

‘Give me the ball!’ shouted the promising young centre Rishi Sunak and then, when they did, he ran cluelessly back into midfield traffic instead of darting for space on the wing. It was no hospital pass, but as the rugby commentators might say, it does indeed look like a very nasty collision.