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Apr 1, 2023
Sunak’s Successes Can’t Blot Out Tory Track Record in Office
Rishi Sunak’s recent run of success isn’t enough to turn around the electoral prospects of his ruling Conservative Party, his own aides fret.
The UK Prime Minister sees his performance in recent weeks as a taste of what he can achieve: the calm and capable delivery of policies from Brexit, the budget and immigration, to the Aukus defense pact, tackling anti-social behavior and nurturing energy security.
But however competent Sunak might appear, he’s saddled with a major disadvantage at the ballot box: The Tories’ record in government since 2010, presiding over unpopular austerity measures, a divisive national referendum and a failure to get a grip on issues that matter to ordinary Britons such as crime and health care.
With local elections due in May and a national vote expected next year, it’s a view shared both by members of the main opposition Labour Party, and — surprisingly — allies of Sunak.
One person close to the prime minister said Sunak can perform as well as he likes, but still has to carry around the leaden weight of his party. Another said recent policy triumphs only served to put the Tories on track for a “good” defeat rather than a cataclysmic Labour landslide.
Recent polling bears that out. A YouGov survey this week gave Labour a 20-point lead over the Tories. While that’s markedly down from the record 37-point margin they enjoyed in the dying days of Liz Truss’s short-lasting government in October, it still points to a sizable Tory defeat at the next general election.
Anti-Conservative sentiment is so strong that the party has a ceiling of around 30% of public support, according to one Labour strategist, who requested anonymity discussing opposition research. Recent focus groups show that while Sunak policies on issues like the small boats crisis might be popular, the overall vibe is people are just fed up of the Tories.
Labour thinks it has a killer response to Sunak’s strategy of putting his personal performance front and center: that his ruling Conservative Party has had 13 years to fix these problems, and the premier can’t just wash his hands of their record in office.
It’s an attack the opposition is wielding with a monotonous regularity that’s likely to persist.
“What they’ve delivered to our country after 13 years in power is nowhere near good enough,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said Wednesday as he launched his party’s local election campaign.
Sunak’s crime push was “too little, too late” because “in 13 years the Tories have decimated neighborhood policing,” Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said Monday. Deputy leader Angela Rayner responded to the government’s energy plan on Thursday with a four-word tweet referencing their time in office.
Ramming home the message, Labour spin doctors sent journalists 11 press releases in the last seven days containing the words “13 years.”
There is historical precedent for the idea the ruling party is at the end of its cycle, said Rob Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester.
“Labour ran on ‘13 wasted years’ in 1964,” he told Bloomberg, while the “Tories ousted New Labour after 13 years in 2010, and Labour had hoped 13 years would be it in 1992 only for John Major to spoil the fun.”
The Major victory gives Labour cause for caution. Some Labour MPs and officials are becoming nervous that should March’s narrative of relatively successful government announcements be repeated over the next year, the general election could be closer than currently seems likely.
One Labour MP said Starmer’s strategy has been to emulate Joe Biden’s US presidential campaign against Donald Trump in 2020, essentially telling voters: I might be boring, but at least I’m not the other guy.
But while that might work against an opponent like Boris Johnson or Liz Truss, the MP argued, against Sunak the divide is less clear-cut. Both he and Starmer have the air of details-orientated technocrats.
A Labour official predicted that if the polls narrow or May’s local elections don’t deliver a crushing defeat for the Tories, Starmer will face pressure to offer a much more ambitious pitch.
Another said the Tories have been good at presenting each new leader as a fresh start, and Labour aims to tie Sunak to Johnson and Truss’s records. A third said Starmer would have to show he has more of a killer instinct.
Despite Sunak bringing a degree of calm back to government, there was some cabinet frustration this week over announcements on crime and energy that veered from the premier’s instruction to keep a laser-like focus on five key pledges on the economy, immigration and the National Health Service. One minister described a ban on nitrous oxide as small fry when rapists and heroin-dealers in their constituency were going unpunished.
To launch the policy, Sunak held a question-and-answer session with voters about anti-social behavior. Several told him the police are failing to investigate serious crimes on the Tories’ watch. A government aide said the bruising encounter captured Sunak’s problem: he correctly identifies issues voters are upset about, but the reason they are upset is that successive Conservative governments have performed poorly.
There are other problems coming down the track. A report into bullying allegations against Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab is likely to arrive after Easter, people familiar said. Some in government expect he will have to resign, throwing Sunak’s administration into more political drama potentially just before the local elections.
Tory strategists insist they don’t expect the polls to start narrowing until the end of the year, by when inflation is predicted to have fallen and Sunak’s five key pledges will have had a chance to resonate with voters.
That plan relies on nothing whatsoever going wrong, a tall order given the recent history of Tory politics.
--With assistance from Ellen Milligan, Emily Ashton and Leonora Campbell.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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