It's not pretty but Rishi Sunak has a narrow path to survive

PM should jettison his natural caution and go for it as an unlikely triumph is still within his reach

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks on the net zero target, at the Downing Street Briefing Room, on September 20. AP
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Almost a year in office as Prime Minister and in virtually every aspect of his government, Rishi Sunak is failing. It’s not me saying that, but the British public, the respondents to The National survey conducted by Deltapoll.

Rishi may want to avert his eyes – its findings are not pretty. The majority feel he lacks a clear vision for the future of the UK – hardly a ringing endorsement if you’re gearing up to go to the electorate.

As he prepares to head to Manchester for what was bound to be a difficult party gathering, to deliver his first conference speech as leader and ahead of a likely general election, Mr Sunak could be forgiven for wishing he did not have to make that journey north.

To make matters worse for him, the railway is to be hit by a national strike, deliberately targeting the timing of the Tory get-together, so he can expect to be greeted by delegates prone to grumbling even more than normal.

The Conservatives are languishing in the polls and Mr Sunak’s own personal rating is low – this against a Labour rival who seems to specialise in dullness, coming up with lacklustre, hardly grabbing policies and led by someone who lacks the charisma gene and most definitely is no Tony Blair.

However he attempts to dress it up, regardless of the spin that will accompany his carefully choreographed appearances in the next week, Mr Sunak is having a torrid time.

He came in on the back of Liz Truss as the clever, safe pair of hands. Many of his MPs admired him even if the activists did not. That was because, we were assured, they knew Mr Sunak from close quarters – he was smart, hard-working, responsible. In short, rest assured, he got it.

We were told repeatedly by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, to believe in Brexit. Riches would follow as the country freed itself of the EU stranglehold and played to its strengths. It simply hasn’t happened.

Again, most people think the government is not making the most of Brexit. Mr Sunak can argue that the decision to leave was taken by those before him, which is true. But it’s still his party.

That took us out of the EU and has been charged ever since with making independence work, and 53 per cent (plus another 20 per cent who don’t know) are not impressed.

He likes to talk strong and tough, does Mr Sunak, wanting us to see him as no pushover where crime is concerned. Here, too, a clear 54 per cent (and another 21 per cent don’t knows) are not convinced.

Another box to be ticked by Mr Sunak is the NHS. He’s a huge supporter of the health service, he’s forever telling us. In which case, he will be crushed to learn that 65 per cent (and 11 per cent don’t know) think he is doing the wrong thing where the NHS is concerned.

On it goes. If Mr Sunak had an area of policy that is his, where he could claim to have a masterly grasp, it’s the economy. A former City man, he understands numbers, knows how to manage money, can be trusted with the nation’s finances.

Sadly, based on what they’ve seen so far, nearly two-thirds, 62 per cent, disagree and do not feel he is managing the economy well (make that 76 per cent with the addition of 14 per cent who don’t know). Only 24 per cent believe he is doing a good job, economy-wise.

The two categories that would also cause him the most distress are immigration and dealing with the rising cost of living. Again, they’re cornerstones of the Sunak premiership, areas he would hope to be able to point to as reasons for giving him a second chance in Number 10.

Not so, says our poll. The boats keep coming across the Channel and Mr Sunak is not stopping the tide. Worse, he gives the impression of being all at sea himself where immigrants are concerned.

The plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda has not got off the ground; meanwhile his much-vaunted floating hostel looks increasingly like a white elephant.

More than two-thirds polled say the government is not doing the right thing in relation to immigration and asylum (that climbs to 81 per cent if the don’t knows are factored in).

On the cost of living he is faring just as poorly, with 68 per cent (and 11 per cent don’t knows) saying his government is handling the crisis wrongly.

So, overall, the picture is bleak. Mr Sunak, though, should not lose heart entirely. He does have strengths and they come to the fore.

He is viewed as doing well in securing foreign direct investment into the UK (67 per cent do not think he is doing a bad job here).

That may sound minor, but it’s not – it’s about the creation of jobs and securing a vibrant, healthy economy. It’s something he should promote, in which he scores strongly.

Foreign business chiefs like him. He speaks their language. They see Mr Sunak as someone who is serious, who understands their needs and who they can be partners with. That could not be said of Mr Johnson or Ms Truss.

On his management of the digital economy Mr Sunak can also take comfort. The country is looking to him for a steer on AI, not certain if it is good or bad.

Here again, he can play up his modern, tech-savvy approach – a clear area of contrast with the older, rather plodding, lawyerly Keir Starmer.

Where the NHS is concerned, he may feel emboldened since 87 per cent support reforms and 48 per cent of respondents to a separate question back a greater role for private providers in what was a state-dominated sphere.

By some distance, the health service usually comes top of every ranking as to what most people in the UK care most deeply about.

For that reason, politicians normally steer well away from it, keeping the creaking structure as it is. For that reason, too, it is definably no longer fit for purpose – unable to cope with a bigger population, people living longer and new, expensive treatments.

But the nation gets that, too. We may love the NHS, believing it’s firmly ours, a uniquely British asset, but we’re also fed up – we can see it’s failing.

For that reason, a resounding 87 per cent of respondents said they accepted that reform of the NHS is needed.

Mr Sunak is not given to gambling and to embark on calling for radical changes to the health service, such as the implementation of a shared public-private funding model, is a brave, dangerous step. It might just, though, set him apart and put him on the road to an unlikely triumph.

He’s got much thinking to do, and if he’s prepared to jettison his natural caution, it could be exciting and moulding. Our poll is telling him: go for it, Rishi, you’ve nothing to lose.

Published: September 29, 2023, 5:00 AM