Is Sunak's search for 'authenticity' too little, too late?

The UK Prime Minister is trying, and failing, while his Conservative party is authentically a shambles

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to pupils in a school in Holywood, Northern Ireland, earlier this month. PA
Powered by automated translation

Politics is often the search for what is sometimes called “authenticity”. It’s the art of being, or at least appearing, real and true to yourself.

Margaret Thatcher, as British prime minister, was authentically bossy. Gordon Brown was authentically serious. Boris Johnson was authentically entertaining but also authentically anarchic, disorganised and often unable to tell the truth. And now it is Rishi Sunak’s time to define himself in the British public mind before it is too late.

Time is running out. Opinion polls repeatedly suggest a Labour landslide is likely in the next general election. Mr Sunak says he will call that election in the second half of 2024, although there are still those who think that the infighting and chaotic state of his Conservative party means that he may risk calling the election earlier to try to ensure a kind of party unity before it is too late.

It may be too late already, and in the quest for “authenticity” we are learning some interesting things about Mr Sunak.

We have learned that he fasts for 36 hours every week. We have learned details of his family wealth. He personally paid an effective tax rate of 23 per cent on an income of £2.2 million ($2.7 million) last year, enriching the British treasury by about half a million pounds. Whether this endears Mr Sunak to the people during a cost-of-living crisis is another matter. Conservative media strategists must have figured out that most British people do not resent wealth or high-income earners provided that tax is paid to the government.

Should Sunak move the party to the centre, where most votes are – or swing right to neutralise the far-right challenge?

But the trouble is that when it comes to “authenticity”, the party Mr Sunak leads is authentically a shambles. The Conservatives are riven between competitors to succeed him, and others desperate to bail out of what they clearly see as a sinking ship.

In recent weeks, we have heard about parties within the party including the National Conservatives, Popular Conservatives, and “Five Families” within Conservatism – as if this is a re-run of The Godfather. We have also seen a return to the political stage of the profoundly unpopular former Conservative prime minister Liz Truss. She lectured the people that we are a nation of “secret” Conservatives. There is surely a logical flaw here. Is it possible to be “national”, “popular” and also “secret” unless you are also, to a certain extent, delusional about all of these things?

Then there is competence. Or lack of it. We had, for example, the spectacle of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (a key government appointment) being schooled into the basics of economics by a BBC interviewer.

We then had a car crash interview in which Mr Sunak was trapped into appearing to take a bet of £1,000 from a TV interviewer. The bet was over whether he, Mr Sunak, would succeed in sending failed asylum seekers to Rwanda. Taking a bet on human misery with a sum of money most people could not afford – a thousand pounds – is never a good look, even if Mr Sunak – one can assume – didn’t mean to appear to be so authentically out of touch. And then there was one further row when Mr Sunak made an unwise joke about trans rights in parliament when the mother of a trans murder victim was in the House of Commons public gallery.

To add to Mr Sunak’s woes, on the right of British politics, the perennial – and hugely effective – gadfly known as Nigel Farage is back and making mischief.

Without Mr Farage, many doubt if Brexit would have happened. He has a great ability to connect with some people because he is – “authentically”, that word again – a bit of a lad. He smokes, drinks a great deal of alcohol, is entertaining in person and has just survived the humiliations of a reality TV show in good humour and with a load of cash (reports say £1.5 million pounds). Moreover, Mr Farage is being courted by those who wish he would run for parliament, either as an independent or for one of the fringe right-wing parties that have sprung up around his Brexit victory.

You can therefore understand Mr Sunak’s dilemma. Faced with a resurgent Labour party on his political left, the sense that most people have after 14 years had enough of the Conservatives, in recent weeks numerous Conservative MPs have chosen to leave politics altogether. Trouble on the right from Mr Farage and ambitious Conservative rivals appears to leave Mr Sunak boxed in.

Should he move the party to the centre, where most votes are – or swing right to neutralise the far-right challenge?

In the 1950s, a Conservative party home secretary by the name of David Maxwell Fyfe insisted that “loyalty is the Tory party’s secret weapon”. In fact, disloyalty, ruthless infighting and getting rid of leaders who have failed (David Cameron, Theresa May, Mr Johnson, Ms Truss) has instead been a much more authentic characteristic of the Conservative party.

It’s going to be a rough year for Mr Sunak. And the rest of us.

Published: February 13, 2024, 4:00 AM