When Rishi Sunak became prime minister of Britain a year ago, there was little sense of celebration. The markets were in free fall after the disastrous 49-day tenure of his predecessor, Liz Truss, and the government was in disarray. Mr. Sunak, who had been rejected by Conservative Party members earlier in the year, was inserted by lawmakers in the desperate hope he could calm the crisis. Given that the party had just ousted two leaders in quick succession, it was unclear how long he would even stay in the post.
One year later, he can take comfort that Britain is in a different place. It’s now possible, for a start, to have a conversation with visitors without being asked what on earth is going on. Projecting decency and stability, Mr. Sunak has calmed the markets, helped to repair relations with the European Union and sated his party’s appetite for regicide. The next election, due by January 2025, is on the horizon. Even party critics concede that Mr. Sunak will lead the Conservatives into it.
But that’s where the good news stops for the prime minister. While Mr. Sunak has moved his party out of crisis mode, he is yet to win over voters. Against hopes that a new leader would raise the party’s fortunes, Mr. Sunak’s approval ratings have sunk along with esteem for the Conservatives. The polls repeatedly suggest a 20-point lead for the opposition Labour Party, whose leader, Keir Starmer, businesses and the media view as the prime minister in waiting.
Adding to a sense of fatalism, a steady drip-feed of local elections — often set off by the bad behavior of Tory lawmakers — have cost the Conservatives once-safe seats. Two more, including one in Conservative hands since 1931, went over to the opposition last week. Mr. Sunak may be doing his best, in trying circumstances. But at the moment, it’s nowhere near enough.
There’s an argument that any leader would struggle with the conditions Mr. Sunak inherited: high inflation, increased borrowing costs and low growth. Across the world, incumbent governments of all stripes are finding their time is up — whether it’s the center-left Labour Party in New Zealand or the right-wing populist Law and Justice party in Poland. When Mr. Sunak has found success, it’s been by making his own weather. His renegotiation of the Northern Ireland protocol, an especially vexed post-Brexit arrangement, showed maturity and won him a brief popularity bounce.
Yet economic difficulties have been stubborn. Mr. Sunak, a former chancellor, was picked by lawmakers because of his economic credentials — and he has managed to win back some market confidence. But the government is still boxed in. The right of the party, including the outspoken Ms. Truss, wants tax cuts. Mr. Sunak won’t budge until inflation is down, which is not happening quickly enough. Facing a winter of high bills, Britons will be feeling the pinch for some time to come.
But Mr. Sunak’s biggest challenge is the length of time his party has been in power. The Conservatives, plagued by scandal, have overseen a country where discontent is legion: A survey taken this summer found that three-quarters of people in Britain believe it is becoming a worse place to live. After 13 years of Tory rule — the same amount of time New Labour, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, enjoyed in office — the other side can’t be blamed for Britain’s woes.
Mr. Sunak’s attempts to overcome this fundamental problem are twofold. First, he has accepted that the country is not working and needs to change. His five priorities — halving inflation, stopping the boats carrying migrants across the Channel, cutting National Health Service waiting lists, growing the economy and reducing debt — are designed to reflect key voter concerns. But many are pessimistic that all the goals can be achieved. Continuing health worker strikes, for example, signal that unhappiness with the state of the N.H.S. is unlikely to subside ahead of the election.
His second move is more ambitious. In a bid to shake off the baggage of previous Tory governments, Mr. Sunak is trying to depict himself as the change candidate. He has axed David Cameron’s pet project, a high-speed rail network linking the Midlands and the North, and scaled down the net-zero commitments embraced by Boris Johnson and Theresa May. The goal is to show him as a man of action with his own convictions, someone prepared, as he recently put it, to “be bold.” But running against your party’s own record is tricky, and it is already causing resentment among colleagues who served in previous administrations.
Hope, strangely, could come from the opposition. Mr. Starmer is yet to be embraced by the public — his job satisfaction ratings remain stubbornly low — and support for his party largely stems from anti-Tory feeling rather than enthusiasm for Labour itself. By depicting Mr. Starmer as a flip-flopping leader at the helm of an ineffectual party, the Tories aim to claw back support. Yet it’s telling that conversations with Conservative lawmakers — some of whom have already begun planning for life after politics — tend to focus more on what will happen after defeat than on how they might win.
In Tory circles, a dinner party game is to debate who the next leader might be. The current favorite is Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary who has made a name for herself with attacks on identity politics. But the scale of defeat is key. A small one would see status quo candidates, like the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, or the defense secretary, Grant Shapps, emerge. A wipeout — winning fewer than 200 seats out of 650 — would give the edge to wild-card candidates from the party’s right. In that scenario Suella Braverman, the hard-line anti-immigrant home secretary, would come to the fore.
For the Tories, such a contest — full of bloodletting and bombast — could be a disaster, setting the stage for years in the wilderness. To prevent it and to forestall defeat, Mr. Sunak must change the narrative. Politics is unpredictable, as Britain has amply shown in the past eight years. But right now, one thing’s for certain: The prime minister is running out of time.
Katy Balls (@katyballs) is the political editor of The Spectator.
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