Rishi Sunak's second year as Prime Minister cannot be a repeat of the first - YP analysis
Yorkshire Tories at the candidate selection in Richmond nine years ago often remark of how Rishi Sunak was a cut above the rest, who was able to dazzle members and become the Conservative’s candidate in rural North Yorkshire, despite not being an obvious choice for the farmers and well-to-do of one the country’s safest seats.
After becoming an MP a year later, and under the watchful eye of his mentor and his predecessor as Richmond MP, William Hague, he rose to the summit of British politics and joined Boris Johnson’s cabinet within four years.
One Brexit, war in Europe and a pandemic later, the Southampton-born “adopted Yorkshireman” is now Prime Minister, and for arguably the first time in his career, and even his adult life, things are going very wrong.
Rishi Sunak’s coronation among his own MPs was meant to be a dose of reality, professionalism and respectability that was able to say to the public that “the grown-ups are back in charge” after the chaos of the 49-day reign of Liz Truss.
Truss’s appointment, coming after the end of Boris Johnson’s time in office, wreaked havoc with the party’s sense of professionalism and respectability which David Cameron had tried to usher in.
Similarly Liz Truss’ gung-ho attitude to detractors of her own specific brand of economics took a wrecking ball to George Osborne’s carefully managed economic credibility which meant the party was seen as the only ones who would be responsible with taxpayers’ money.
The metrics that Rishi Sunak has set himself for failure or success have been self-imposed, the measure that he wants the public, journalists and backbenchers to measure him by – his much-championed Five Priorities.
Those are, lest we forget: halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut NHS waiting times and stop the boats
Though Downing Street will argue that most of these are generally going in the right direction, they are flawed measures which bely a greater issue with Mr Sunak, that despite his meteoric rise to power, he just isn’t that good of a politician.
Firstly, for many passing observers of Whitehall policy, of which most voters are, things such as cutting waiting lists and not shrinking the economy should be normal business of Government, rather than bold ambitions.
The Prime Minister should be fully aware, after seeing the devastating effect of Covid and the war in Ukraine, that some things are beyond the immediate control of the Government, or more specifically, out of the control of a Government that is unwilling to spend big.
Inflation, linked to a myriad of global factors, is to a certain degree out of his hands.
So too is economic growth when public investment remains low and taxes remain high.
Reducing debt when there is a need for some public spending, is not necessarily an easy win for the Prime Minister either.
Cutting NHS waiting lists from the insurmountable backlog of Covid winters is, again, one that is difficult to achieve, and without vast amounts of money and reform will not happen overnight.
Stopping the boats relies on factors as disparate as weather, wars, and the goodwill of French politicians outside of an election cycle to put an end to crossings.
Even if Downing Street manages to cobble together a graphic that says “job done” voters will not be moved unless they can see any tangible effect on their lives.
Unless the cost of living crisis feels better than it is, then talk of inflation, debt and growth are abstract as Artificial Intelligence.
Similarly, if immigration feels as if it is still an issue for voters, then what is the benefit of saying he has “stopped the boats”.
Though skewed because of low-turnout and local factors, Rishi Sunak has failed almost every major electoral test he has faced in the last year.
There have been eight by-elections, and the party has won only one - in Boris Johnson’s old seat.
Four of these have been lost to Labour, including losing the North Yorkshire seat of Selby to a 25-year-old almost straight out of university.
In this time the polls have narrowed only slightly from around a 30-point to 20-point lead for Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, and saw the Conservatives lose more than 1,000 councillors and control of almost 50 councils in this year’s local elections.
With the potential of another year until the next general election, this month’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester is in some ways his first year in a microcosm, and a warning that the second year cannot be a repeat of the first.
The announcements made by the Prime Minister, meant to be another reset and rebrand, had two flaws.
The first, that his pitch to the North fails because the region has run out of belief. Decades of promises of transport, investment and industry have simply not come to pass, meaning there is no reason to believe that this particular iteration will be any different.
The second reinforces that Sunak still does not quite understand where the country is on the issues it faces, and will instead do the “important” thing that he feels is right.
Reforms to A-levels, banning smoking for future generations, Artificial Intelligence summits, a war on “woke science”, holding back on house-building, and slowing down on green policies are positions that miss where the country wants to see its focus.
Where is the politician who dazzled those Conservative members in Richmond almost a decade ago? He is still there, but there is still a sense from many Tory MPs that put him in office, that he was the best candidate in a largely-tarnished party lacking a fresh pitch to the electorate.
Part of the problem with Rishi Sunak’s lack of connection with voters is the inability to bring together the disparate and varied coalition of voters that Boris Johnson was able to rally behind the party for the first time in 2019.
The cost of living crisis has created a perfect storm of disillusionment between the working class areas the Conservatives want to keep and need, and the Prime Minister who wants to return to number 10: money.
Being as rich as he is, flying by private jet and helicopter, all while business linked to his wife benefit from Government funding, is only something you can get away with if you have an incredible amount of goodwill from the public to begin with.
His pitch to voters of “remember when I gave you that free money during Covid?” falls on deaf ears when it is delivered by one of the only men in the country who can safely say the cost of living crisis has not affected them at all.
There is a tendency to only view the Conservative Party as being in trouble when its backbenchers are circling like sharks for their fourth regicide in four years, but the Government is in trouble.
One year of failed rebrands, flawed targets and misfiring policies is foolish, a second could spell electoral oblivion for the party that asked him to save them.