Prime Minister Sunak started the week with a pretty terse exchange with BBC Radio Scotland when he flew into a rather inappropriate rant when trying to justify his use of a private jet to travel to Scotland. Good Morning Scotland’s Martin Geissler asked the prime minister how he was arriving in Scotland where he was due to make a well-trailed green energy announcement. Obviously, Sunak was flying, as he normally does.
“If you or others think that the answer to climate change is getting people to ban everything that they’re doing, to stop people from flying, to stop people going on holiday. I mean, I think that’s absolutely the wrong approach”, the PM tetchily insisted.
Of course, that’s not what the presenter asked, but it does demonstrate Sunak’s general state of mind – as well as the Conservatives’ unease with environmental issues. Environmentalism does not come naturally to them as a party; huge state intervention measures are needed to combat climate change – anathema to their ideological orthodoxy.
Sunak on the drift
But the public mood has changed. Fracking showed the extent to which once you start messing with the environment and habitat of your local communities, the locals will rise up. The ‘battle of Balcombe’ is a good case in point.
In 2019 the government announced a moratorium on further fracking only for that to be reversed by Liz Truss during her short period of time as prime minister. In places like North East Derbyshire, a marginal seat that the Conservatives won in 2017, the local district council Conservative group has defied the parliamentary party and declared that they won’t lift the moratorium.
The outburst on Radio Scotland was also telling for other reasons. First, it shows that Sunak and his party are still politically vulnerable on environmental issues. But perhaps more importantly it shows the extent to which Sunak is not a natural politician.
Tony Blair, or even Boris Johnson, would have just laughed off the probing from Martin Geissler and moved the conversation on. Being rattled is not a good look for a leader, and if you can’t easily explain something as simple as getting from A to B without an exasperated knee-jerk pushback you are certainly going to have a problem with the bigger stuff.
Sunak has been thrust into something that he actually hasn’t got the requisite skills to do – remember the first time he auditioned for the job he came second to Truss, whose prime ministerial tenure was shorter than the shelf life of a salad item.
Holed beneath the waterline?
He has good reason to be rattled. As Jennifer Scott said in her Sky News piece on 19 July, the public perception of the Conservative leader is not looking good – a recent survey from YouGov showed that Sunak’s net favourability had hit minus 40, a 6% decrease from last month. ‘Dishy Rishi’ is fast becoming ‘Ditchy Rishi’ if the popularity polls are anything to go by.
And he still has an unruly parliamentary party to deal with where a rump of MPs are intent on still giving their leader a hard time – not least of all on Brexit. The recent emergence of ‘national conservatism’ and the accompanying three-day natcon conference demonstrates that here is a party not at ease with itself. Such factional bifurcation would be a challenge for even the most skilful of leaders. Sunak just looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
He ill-advisedly thought it was a cracking idea to make those five pledges at the start of the year. The Spectator has marked his scorecard so far. Halving inflation in 12 months is woefully off trajectory – although slowly dropping it is still at historic levels; growth in the economy is yet to be convincingly demonstrated; debt reduction has turned into further rises that are the highest for 62 years; NHS waiting lists are anything but falling; and the new legislation to ‘stop the boats’ is counterproductive at best.
Flailing around for driftwood
Beleaguered, Sunak is desperately trying to find something that works for him. No wonder the “petrol headed populism” as espoused by John Oxley in The Spectator has been so appealing. The latest wheeze is to suggest that low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) could be scrapped. And yet there is no evidence that this is a move supported by the majority of voters. Far from it. According to Forbes, a new poll from Redfield and Wilton Strategies found that 58% of respondents in London support the introduction of LTNs, with just 17% opposing.
Sunak seems to lack that deft touch or finely tuned political antennae that a great politician – or even a half decent one – needs. He looked at the recent by-election result in Uxbridge and calculated that car ownership is a key attribute of Conservative voters. Actually no; it’s just that net zero measures are impacting those who can least afford to do something about it. At the end of the day, it’s the cost-of-living crisis that underpins much voter behaviour and a failure to recognise that will cost the Conservatives seats across the country.
Rishi the rudderless
What those by-elections did show is that the Conservative Party has not a clue where its vote is any more, and Sunak hasn’t the experience or knowledge to know how to find it.
Sure, Conservative voters stayed at home in Selby and Ainsty, but what’s going to make them come out when the prime minister is flip-flopping all over the place OR simply not delivering on any promises?
Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest voting intention poll in Great Britain finds the Labour Party leading by 17%. The latest Ipsos political monitor, taken 19 to 23 July, shows that three out of four people think Britain is becoming a worse place to live.
Sunak is probably relieved it’s the summer holidays. He is fighting on all fronts – not least within his own parliamentary party. The party strategists and tacticians must be scratching their heads wondering where on earth their vote is – especially in the red wall seats – because it walked off the side of a cliff in Selby and Ainsty.
We have another 12 months before the general election – maybe more. Can the Conservatives turn the ship around? It’s increasingly doubtful whilst captain Sunak is at the helm.