Rishi Sunak's smooth leadership style tested by popularity slump

In his short time as UK prime minister, the former banker has had to deal with several party controversies

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak outside 10 Downing Street, London. PA
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Rishi Sunak was spared the embarrassment of becoming the first prime minister to lose three by-elections in a day, but still lost two seats in a round of voting that came 10 months into his premiership.

The triple by-election threat, caused by a variety of departures from Tory MPs, was viewed as a test of his leadership, which has been undercut by sliding popularity ratings in the opinion polls.

Mr Sunak has based his leadership on five main policies, which he announced in January, include tackling inflation, the economy, national debt, the NHS and migrant crossings, but the pledges have had little effect on voters yet to see a sustained improvement in the government's record.

The prime minister insisted on Friday that holding on to the Uxbridge seat gave the best sense of how the general election could play out. “When people are confronted with a real choice, a choice on a matter of substance, as they have here, they vote Conservative,” he said.

“That’s what the general election is going to be about. It’s going to be about actual issues that make a difference to people. And that’s what we deliver in the Conservative Party.”

Voters went to ballot boxes a day after Mr Sunak's popularity rating sank to its lowest level since he entered 10 Downing Street in October, according to a YouGov poll published on Wednesday. His ratings dropped to -40 in July, down from -34 in late June.

Rishi Sunak's early life

Mr Sunak was born in Southampton to Hindu parents of Punjabi descent and he is the eldest of three siblings.

He read philosophy, politics and economics at Winchester College, Oxford, before moving to Stanford University to study an MBA as a Fulbright Scholar.

Mr Sunak married Akshata Murthy in 2009, holding a two-day wedding ceremony in Bangalore.

They have two daughters, Krishna and Anoushka.

Rishi Sunak's work before politics

Mr Sunak worked at investment bank Goldman Sachs, then moved into hedge fund management, later becoming a partner in the Children's Investment Fund.

He has also worked with his father-in-law, billionaire NR Narayana Murthy, as a director of Catamaran Ventures.

At age 29, Mr Sunak helped to start a private investment firm called Theleme Partners.

He has a portfolio of properties, including a large house in Kensington, a flat in central London, a manor house in Yorkshire and a property in Santa Monica, California.

Rishi Sunak through the years – in pictures

Rishi Sunak's rise in politics

Rishi Sunak became UK prime minister in October 2022, following Liz Truss's disastrous 49 days as leader of the Conservative Party.

He is the UK's first Asian prime minister and also one of the youngest – he was 42 when he assumed the role.

In his short time as leader, he has had to deal with several issues, including a cost-of-living crisis, high inflation, adapting the Northern Ireland Protocol and nationwide worker strikes, all under the shadow of an investigation into his former boss, Boris Johnson.

Mr Sunak became an MP in 2015 when he won the seat of Richmond.

Since then, he has held roles including chief secretary to the Treasury and chancellor.

What are Rishi Sunak's policies as Conservative leader?

In January, the prime minister outlined five policies he is focusing on to “build a better, more secure, more prosperous future that this country deserves”.

Mr Sunak pledged to halve inflation this year to ease cost-of-living pressures and give people financial security.

He plans to grow the economy, creating better-paid jobs and opportunities across the country.

National debt is also a priority, with Mr Sunak saying he wants to make sure it falls to secure the future of public services.

He has taken NHS waiting lists to task, saying he wants them to ensure people get the care they need more quickly.

Migrants crossing the English Channel are also a priority for Mr Sunak, who promised to pass new laws to “stop the boats” and make sure that if people come to the UK illegally, they will be detained and swiftly removed.

“I fully expect you to hold my government and I to account on delivering those goals,” Mr Sunak said when unveiling his policies.

What is Rishi Sunak's leadership style?

On his appointment as prime minister, Mr Sunak’s allies described him as “immaculate”, “calm” and “organised”.

Since becoming prime minister, Mr Sunak has held firm on his policies and has not backtracked on unpopular plans to please the public and cement his position as leader and head of the Conservative Party.

In managing high-profile incidents, such as Suella Braverman's speeding claims, he referred to his ethics adviser for guidance in an appearance of fairness while still recognising the severity of the situation.

Updated: July 26, 2023, 11:20 PM