UK voters warm to new leader Sunak, but not to his party
Rishi Sunak has been Britain’s prime minister for a month. In the tumultuous world of U.K. politics in 2022, that’s an achievement.
Sunak, who took office a month ago Friday on Oct. 25, has steadied the nation after the brief term of predecessor Liz Truss. Britain’s first prime minister of color, Sunak has stabilized the economy, reassured allies from Washington to Kyiv and even soothed the European Union after years of sparring between Britain and the bloc.
But Sunak’s challenges are just beginning. He is facing a slowing economy, a cost-of-living crisis — and a governing Conservative Party that is fractious and increasingly unpopular after 12 years in power.
Opinion polls have good news and bad news for Sunak. The public quite likes the 42-year-old former investment banker, but his party is another matter.
In a survey by pollster Ipsos, 47% of respondents said they liked the prime minister, while 41% disliked him.
“That’s definitely better than Boris Johnson was getting earlier this year,” said Gideon Skinner, Ipsos’ head of political research. But he said Sunak’s popularity “is not showing signs of rubbing off onto the Conservative Party brand.”
In the same survey the Conservative Party was liked by just 26%, and disliked by 62% — the worst figures for the party in 15 years. The Ipsos phone survey of 1,004 adults is considered accurate to within plus or minus four percentage points.
Many voters welcome Sunak as a change from Truss and her predecessor Johnson, who quit in July after three scandal-plagued years in office. But the party has been in power since 2010, making it hard for Conservatives to avoid blame for the country’s financial woes.
Lingering allegations of misconduct also are tarnishing its image. On Wednesday Sunak appointed a senior lawyer to investigate allegations of bullying against his deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab.
It’s not impossible for the Conservatives to rebuild their popularity before the next election, due by the end of 2024. But it won’t be easy. Current polls suggest the Labour Party would win handily.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic Sunak, then Britain’s treasury chief, gained popularity by spending billions to support shuttered businesses and pay the salaries of furloughed workers.
Now he has to deliver bitter medicine. Britain’s economy is being weighed down by the pandemic, by Brexit and especially by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has driven global energy prices sky-high.
Millions of people in Britain have seen energy bills soar, though a government-imposed cap has prevented even higher prices. Pandemic-related backlogs and staff shortages have caused record waiting times for health care in Britain’s National Health Service.
The situation was made worse by Truss’ ill-advised September package of unfunded tax cuts, which torpedoed the U.K.’s reputation for economic prudence, weakened the pound, drove up the cost of borrowing and triggered emergency central bank intervention. Truss resigned last month after less than two months in the job.
“I fully appreciate how hard things are,” Sunak said in his first address to the nation on Oct. 25, warning of “difficult decisions to come.”
An emergency budget last week helped buoy the pound and calm markets — at the cost of 25 billion pounds ($30 billion) in tax hikes and the prospect of public spending cuts down the road.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development forecast this week that the U.K. economy will shrink by 0.4% in 2023 and grow by just 0.2% in 2024, the worst outlook among Group of Seven industrialized countries.
WAR IN EUROPE
Boris Johnson’s departure caused concern in Kyiv, where his staunch support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion won admiration and respect.
Britain has given Ukraine 2.3 billion pounds ($2.8 billion) in military aid since the start of the war, more than any country except the United States, and has lobbied allies to do more to help Kyiv.
Sunak traveled to Kyiv last week to reassure President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that Britain’s policy would not change under his leadership. “I am proud of how the U.K. stood with you from the very beginning,” Sunak told Zelenskyy. “And I am here today to say the United Kingdom will continue to stand with Ukraine.”
London is keeping up its flow of support, announcing in the past week that it will deliver anti-aircraft guns, anti-drone technology and three Sea King helicopters to Ukraine.
But while support for Ukraine is secure, defense spending could face a squeeze. Sunak has dropped a commitment made by Truss to increase defense spending to 3% of gross domestic product by 2030.
Britain’s relations with its closest neighbors and biggest trading partners have been tense since it left the now 27-nation European Union in 2020. Johnson and Truss both seemed to delight in riling the bloc to placate the powerful euroskeptic wing of the Conservative Party.
Sunak has been more emollient, making warm calls to European leaders in the days after taking office. Achieving concrete change is more difficult, given the power that ardent Brexiteers hold within the Conservatives.
Britain’s departure from the EU in 2020 brought customs checks and other barriers for businesses trading with the bloc, sparked a political crisis in Northern Ireland and ended the free flow of EU nationals into Britain to fill vacant jobs.
Britain could ease trade friction if it agreed to align with EU rules in some areas, such as veterinary or food standards. But after reports that the government was seeking closer ties riled euroskeptics, Sunak said this week that he would not accept “alignment with EU laws.”
David Henig, a trade expert at the European Centre for International Political Economy, said that backlash “has revealed just how deep the Europe problem is for Rishi Sunak and for the Conservative Party.”
He said Sunak is a long-time Brexit supporter, but also a pragmatist who “just wants a relationship that works — and it quite clearly doesn’t at the moment.”
“I think the problem is that he has no great fresh ideas as to how to make that work, and a lot of internal opposition,” Henig said.