It may surprise you to consider, given that he ended the year as Prime Minister, but 2022 was a bad year for Rishi Sunak.
He started that year with a positive approval rating of +20% for his job performance as Chancellor, only to see it collapse to -19% in April, according to Redfield & Wilton research. When Boris Johnson resigned in July, Sunak was the frontrunner in the Conservative Party’s leadership contest, and yet he lost the membership vote to the relatively less well known and less polished Liz Truss.
Even his fortuitous return to Downing Street in late October was marred by the fact that he took over the reins of a party that stood—and still stands—more than twenty points behind Labour in the polls.
Due to the slow, enduring burn of Boris Johnson’s party-gate scandal and the spectacular implosion of Liz Truss’ Premiership, Rishi Sunak’s overall poor 2022 has been overlooked. But understanding what went wrong for Sunak last year is the key to understanding why Labour’s considerable lead in the polls has hardly budged in the last five months.
This is especially worth reflecting on as we anticipate Jeremy Hunt’s Spring Budget, for Sunak’s troubles began in earnest following his ill-received Spring Statement delivered almost a year ago. That Budget, meekly labelled a ‘Statement’ to reflect its lack of significant changes to previously announced policies, exhibited three key failings: (1) a core belief that Britain’s economic problems are primarily the result of temporary external shocks and will thus go away with time, (2) a consequent lack of demonstrable urgency in addressing Britain’s economic problems, and (3) a preoccupation with image management.
Whatever one thinks of the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and the mistakes that were made, it is nevertheless clear today that a whole-of-government effort was involved in addressing that crisis. The same can be said with regard to the war in Ukraine. But not so with respect to the cost-of-living crisis.
In polling conducted in April 2022, two-thirds of voters said they believed the Government had taken the pandemic “fairly” or “extremely” seriously. By comparison, following Sunak’s Spring Statement, the same percentage of voters thought the Government was taking the cost-of-living crisis “not at all” or only “somewhat” seriously. Instead, with his photoshoot alongside a Kia borrowed from a Sainsbury’s worker, Rishi Sunak appeared primarily concerned with his own image rather than with the struggles of ordinary people.
While Labour has led the Conservatives in every Redfield & Wilton voting intention poll since the party-gate scandal emerged in December 2021, the Conservatives had been able to retain their lead as the party most trusted on the economy up until Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement. That event, or perhaps non-event, is the critical inflection point after which the Conservatives’ reputation on the economy began to disappear.
Months later, in the Conservative Party’s leadership contest, Sunak struggled to defend the tax increases that were reaffirmed in that Spring Statement. In fact, every candidate in that contest, not least Jeremy Hunt, promised to reverse such tax hikes. While Sunak was right to place emphasis on fiscal responsibility, he could not articulate what he had done as Chancellor and would do as Prime Minister to grow the economy and make things better.
Critically, the Prime Minister has yet to give the impression that he has learned from this experience. His economic priorities for 2023 betray the very same failings that were first exhibited in last year’s Spring Statement. Halving inflation, his first priority, was projected by the Office of Budget Responsibility to take place anyway, primarily due to falling global energy prices. His pledge to grow the economy lacks specificity as to how much growth, and his final economic pledge to reduce the national debt lacks a timeline. The Prime Minister and his Chancellor could announce no policy changes in the upcoming Budget, and they would likely still be able to channel their inner George Bush and declare mission accomplished at the end of this year.
Is it any surprise, then, that Rishi Sunak’s priorities have failed to capture the public’s imagination? At best, our polling shows just 8% can name one of the Government’s priorities is to reduce inflation, followed by 5% who can cite cutting NHS waiting lists. More importantly, because they see little meaningful improvement in everyday life, 4 in 5 voters say Sunak’s Government has made only “a little” or “no progress at all” towards achieving each of his priorities.
With this striking data in mind, the Prime Minister has much to do this week in order to demonstrate that substantial economic progress has been made.
This article originally appeared in the Times RedBox