Lessons in popularity prove elusive as Rishi Sunak opens election year battles

Opening gambit of 2024 on migration fails to grab momentum as PM attempts to overhaul poll deficit

Some observers say a miracle is needed for Rishi Sunak to retain his position as UK Prime Minister in the next election. PA
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The first working day of the new year was meant to herald a renewed assault by Britain’s Prime Minister on his low poll ratings.

Rishi Sunak’s team hoped to trumpet that the significant backlog of applications for 112,000 asylum seekers had been cleared, teeing up an early January boost for their leader with evidence of promises fulfilled.

But somehow the beleaguered Prime Minister’s struggles to seize the agenda fell short, with attacks from all sides over his failure to stop small boats crossing the Channel while the cleared backlog still had 4,500 unresolved cases.

Britain’s first general election in five years is expected within 10 months, with Mr Sunak admitting it is “a narrow path to victory” for a Conservative Party that consistently trails behind the Labour opposition in opinion polls.

To overhaul that wide margin requires a lot of things to go right for Mr Sunak, or what some political observers argue, something miraculous.

The Prime Minister is understood to have used the Christmas holiday period to hold discussions with his closest advisers on how to remain in power.

Sunak's five priorities

A start would be demonstrating that he has fulfilled the five promises he made at the beginning of his leadership.

The cry of “stop the boats”, referring to migrants illegally crossing the English Channel from continental Europe, is the most publicised pledge.

And in that he has had some success, with numbers dropping by a third last year to 29,000, although a Border Force union official on Tuesday said they would rise again this year.

Mr Sunak was not helped by the hapless Home Secretary James Cleverly, who has recently blundered by using swear words and making an inappropriate comments about women.

Mr Cleverly, a former army officer, appeared out of synch again on Tuesday when he pledged he would reduce the number of illegal small boat crossings to “zero”.

Wary of being caught out by a promise remaining unfulfilled, the Prime Minister’s spokesman failed to back the Home Secretary’s stance, refusing to endorse the pledge.

“We have to do better than this,” one Tory official said. “Even with good news announcements, we still seem to get ourselves into a tangle.”

Mr Sunak will carry on regardless by opening himself up to the public on Thursday, addressing people in the East Midlands in a question-and-answer session.

That comes with risk as a well as reward. If his irascible streak shows itself, he will be vilified, but if he is able to argue articulately and exude political charm like Boris Johnson, he might find a path to persuade doubting voters.

The privately educated, former hedge fund manager's potential to connect with the people on the street could be a potent weapon in dislodging Labour’s lead.

Labour waiting in the wings

Keir Starmer, the opposition leader and to many the prime minister-in-waiting, is regarded as steady without being inspiring, which potentially gives Mr Sunak an opportunity to exploit.

The Prime Minister should also be able to boast about healthy economic figures, with inflation dropping to 3.9 per cent last month, with further decline possible as the price of oil drops.

Britain’s high interest rates, that soared on the back of inflation, affected hundreds of thousands of mortgage holders but will likely be reduced by the Bank of England in the coming months.

It is also expected the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt will use his budget speech in early March to grab some glowing headlines by reducing the heavy tax burden on workers and potentially banishing the unpopular inheritance levy.

He might also use some of the £15 billion ($19 billion) garnered from reduced inflation and higher tax receipts to meet another pledge of reducing the national debt, which stands at £2.6 trillion.

More effort is going into cutting National Health Service waiting lists, another of Mr Sunak's five priorities, although the latest junior doctors’ strike has proved unhelpful in resolving this.

So there is a chance come spring that Mr Sunak will be able to announce he has come good on all his pledges and is the man to be trusted to run Britain.

But it appears his best-laid plans never quite seem to survive contact with the public arena.

Updated: January 03, 2024, 10:53 AM