The plane was 35,000ft over the Atlantic when Rishi Sunak finally snapped. The breaking point was a question from the Financial Times about why the British prime minister thought a “midsize country” might be in a position to write the global rules for artificial intelligence. There was a flash of anger in his eyes. “That midsize country you talked about,” Sunak began, before proceeding to extol Britain’s position as a global leader in technology.
Sunak’s frustration had been building for months. Behind the scenes he railed to friends and colleagues about journalists talking down Britain. Why, he wondered, could they not be more proud of their own country, like French reporters? But nobody on that trip to Washington in June had ever seen him quite like this before: the cool technocrat stirring for a fight.
Sunak will need plenty of spark in the months ahead, as he strives to make British voters and the rest of the world see the UK as he does. The obvious problem is that Britain became an international joke in recent times in large part thanks to his own Conservative party, which burnt through five prime ministers in six years. When The Economist ran a cover story last year headlined “Welcome to Britaly”, there was a furious reaction to the comparison — in Italy.
Sunak is still hurt by the mocking memes sent to him by high-rolling colleagues in his old world of international finance before he became prime minister in October 2022. Some compared the shelf-life of his predecessor Liz Truss to a head of lettuce. “He’s proud of Britain. He wants people to have pride in their country,” says an aide speaking, like some other Sunak supporters, on condition of anonymity. “He feels that very strongly.”
Next year, Sunak will ask the public at a general election to trust the Tories with another five years in power. Even many in his own party believe he is doomed to fail, that he will be dragged under by the legacy of 13 years of Conservative rule: public sector austerity, Brexit, the chaos and lies of Boris Johnson, the Covid-19 lockdown parties and the economic meltdown of Truss’s brief tenure.
This month alone, the PM’s efforts to talk about the future — a pact with the EU on scientific collaboration or the prospects for a UK-India trade deal — have been drowned out by events that seem to epitomise an administration decaying in office. Schools have been closed to stop crumbling concrete roofs falling on students’ heads, holidays were wrecked when the country’s air traffic control system collapsed and a prisoner charged with terrorism escaped strapped to the underside of a truck from an understaffed jail. The scale of the country’s problems would seem almost comedic if they weren’t so grim.
The price for this cavalcade of mismanagement can be seen in public opinion surveys, which typically show the Tories trailing Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party by between 15 and 20 points, easily enough to overturn the 80-seat majority won by Boris Johnson in 2019. Anthony Wells, director of political polling at YouGov, says he had not seen a government so “exhausted” since John Major’s Conservative administration in the 1990s. Asked for his views for a 4,000-word piece on whether Sunak could win the next election, he replied: “What are you going to say in the other 3,999?”
Nonetheless, Sunak remains bullish about his chances of defying the sceptics, with the economy faring better and inflation coming under control. A revamped Number 10 operation is determined to deliver a fifth consecutive Tory election victory. “He really believes he can do it,” says one Downing Street insider. But with such a narrow path to victory, the challenge will be avoiding falling off.
Sunak became Britain’s prime minister with a simple mission: to sort out the mess left behind by Johnson — who left office last September in a sea of scandal — and his successor Truss, whose surreal 49 days in power made her the shortest-serving PM in British history. Nobody had a clear idea of what exactly Sunak wanted to do with the country. “He made an unusual decision when he became party leader and prime minister not to set out his stall,” says Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, a bible for the party’s grassroots.
According to Goodman, Sunak had taken the advice of Isaac Levido, the party’s Australian election strategist: “Isaac said that after Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the voters didn’t want to hear from the Tories and he should concentrate on delivering a few key priorities.”
The idea was that the pragmatic Sunak, with his elite education (Winchester College, Oxford university, Stanford) and career in finance at Goldman Sachs would deploy his analytical skills to crack the big issues facing the country. His advisers badged him as “Rishi the problem solver”.
So in January, Sunak set out five priorities for his government, with mixed results. His three economic promises to halve inflation, cut debt and grow the economy appeared achievable at the time and look likely to be met. But the pledge to cut England’s hospital waiting lists has not been delivered; the number waiting for treatment has risen from 7.2 million when he first made the promise to a record 7.6 million. Meanwhile, there has been little progress on his bold promise to “stop the boats” carrying migrants across the English Channel. A plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is held up in the courts.
Sunak remains focused on immediate problems. “Rishi says we don’t have the space at the moment to talk about future stuff,” says one ally. The party is gripped with a fear of impending electoral oblivion. Tory MPs and ministers returned to Westminster this month in a grumpy mood, an air of political suffocation compounded by the stultifying late summer heat building up in the Victorian corridors. There was no relief from the polls, which showed Labour apparently heading for a first election victory since 2005. “What we need now is a general on horseback,” says one former cabinet minister. “Rishi hasn’t been that general so far.”
Sunak’s “narrow path to victory” in a general election was first described by his strategist Levido at the start of this year. It was an optimistic scenario in which the economy picks up, hospital waiting lists fall, clandestine migration sharply declines and disciplined Tory MPs fall in behind the prime minister and his new vision. The pessimistic scenario — viewed as much more likely by bookmakers and some Tories — sees the prime minister struggling to throw off the legacy of the past, while his party enters a death spiral of ill-discipline and recrimination.
According to one former minister, “If Sunak showed the energy and boldness he showed in the Treasury, it’s possible we could still win the next election. But he’s timid and lethargic.” Sunak has fallen a long way since the heights of popularity he enjoyed in 2020 when, as the newly minted “Covid chancellor”, he dispensed billions of pounds to see the country through the pandemic, making him the most popular holder of that post in 40 years.
Then it would have been scarcely imaginable that he could lose to Truss in a Tory leadership contest as he did last year. Indeed, when he was asked in a Sky television interview this May how it had felt to lose, the prime minister was left speechless, apparently unable to process the experience. “He was traumatised,” says one Tory MP.
Since succeeding the self-destructing Truss last October, Sunak’s brand of managerial competence also appears to have lost some of its appeal. Speaking of the disquiet that has been seeping out in Westminster WhatsApp groups throughout the summer, one rightwing Tory MP says: “Rishi hasn’t got it in him to win this election. He’s a manager, not a leader. He’s an investment banker, not a politician.”
Sunak has promised Tory MPs he will map out his vision for the country’s future at the party conference in October and in the King’s Speech the following month. Clues to this vision, say his team, are to be found in the text of two speeches — his priority-setting speech at London’s Olympic Park in January and the Mais Lecture he gave to City of London folk in 2022 when he was still chancellor. It is safe to say that neither of these texts has entered the nation’s consciousness. To the extent that a political creed of “Sunakism” can be discerned, his allies say he is most passionate about creating a world-class education system and harnessing the power of technology to boost the country’s sluggish growth rate.
Sunak, who spent his twenties hanging out with “tech bros” — he still has a home in Santa Monica — seems to want to build Britain in his own image. “I studied and worked in California, surrounded by Silicon Valley start-ups, living and breathing that entrepreneurial culture,” Sunak said in his Mais Lecture. His January speech promised to “reimagine our approach to numeracy” and the hiring of more maths teachers. Both speeches dwelled on the case for boosting R&D and innovation. Many economists agreed with his analysis.
The question that some voters might ask is, as Goodman puts it: “What’s in it for me?” Sunak’s rival Keir Starmer has latched on to the idea of a prime minister living in a different world to the rest of the country, joking about Sunak’s interest in the mortgage market in California, his penchant for flying short distances to events by helicopter, his decision to cut alcohol duty on champagne and his choice of private schools for his two daughters. Referring to crumbling concrete in state schools, Starmer taunted Sunak this month: “He thinks his school cuts are for other families to endure.”
Sunak’s extreme wealth — his wife Akshata Murty is the daughter of Infosys tycoon NR Narayana Murthy — was not a political problem while he was chancellor and handing out furlough cash and other support. But, in the midst of a cost of living crisis and with public services failing, Labour is targeting Sunak’s privileged lifestyle relentlessly.
Sunak did not come from a particularly moneyed background. He was born in 1980 of Indian heritage and his grandparents arrived in the UK from east Africa. His father was a general practitioner in Southampton; his mother ran a local chemist. He has spoken about the “sacrifice” made by his parents to send him to Winchester College (current fees £49,152 a year for boarders), where he was head boy, the senior prefect who represents all students.
“A few weeks after he became PM, he was marvelling at how he was Britain’s first prime minister from an Asian background and nobody said anything about it,” says one Downing Street insider. “He thought that said something really positive about our country. You can’t imagine it happening in most other European countries.”
If Sunak’s ethnicity has been the subject of little discussion, his penchant for luxury consumer goods such as his Palm Angels sliders (£95) and Ember travel mugs (£180) have made him the subject of frequent social media jibes. Nadine Dorries, the former Tory cabinet minister, resigned as an MP last month with a parting shot at Sunak in his “Prada shoes and Savile Row suit”. The PM’s allies are alert to the political danger. “Rishi doesn’t care if people think he’s wealthy,” says one. “He cares if people think he’s out of touch.”
By all accounts Sunak is a hard-working PM. His family holiday in California this summer was his first since 2019. “He’s downstairs at 7.30am and is working until 11pm,” says one 10 Downing Street insider. “He is unapologetic about using helicopters on visits. We are a G7 country. If he can get back to work at his desk half an hour earlier, he thinks it’s worth it.”
He tells colleagues he is frustrated that he does not get the credit he thinks he deserves for meticulously negotiated international deals, notably the Windsor framework agreement that in February ended a bitter post-Brexit row with the EU over Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements. But his insistence on being closely involved with all big decisions leaves him little time for “the vision thing” and can lead to delays. This month’s deal for Britain to join the EU’s €95bn Horizon science collaboration scheme was welcomed by UK scientists, but they’d fulminated for months over how long it was taking.
With an election due within the next 15 months, allies admit things will have to speed up. “He has been told he can’t just exist as a problem-solver. He’s got to go out there and have a fight,” says one person close to Sunak. “He’s going to have to do things with which he won’t be comfortable.”
Liam Booth-Smith, his longstanding chief of staff, and James Forsyth, his political secretary and an old friend from Winchester College days, have urged him to become more political. “They have persuaded Rishi he has to move outside his comfort zone if he’s going to hold on to power,” says an ally of Sunak. “That has been a long and difficult process.”
One former cabinet minister close to Sunak says that unlike Johnson — who was inclined to say whatever came into his head if it was politically expedient — the current occupant of Number 10 is reluctant to engage in the grubby side of politics. After his ill-fated 2022 leadership bid, one backer lamented that Sunak had shown no “moral flexibility”.
A Brexiter who hung a portrait of tax-cutting Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson over his Treasury desk, Sunak is said by colleagues to take hard stances on social issues such as migration and crime and on containing public spending. “His instincts are always to spend less,” says one minister. In spite of the fact he already presides over the highest tax burden in Britain’s history — a reflection partly of big state interventions on Covid and energy and partly because of the costs of an ageing society — Sunak’s supporters have no doubt where his instincts lie: “He’s much more rightwing than people think,” says one cabinet minister.
But he faces a titanic struggle to balance the often contradictory demands made by his fissiparous party. Many Tory MPs representing former industrial seats in Labour’s former “red wall” in the north and the Midlands were elected when Boris Johnson was Tory leader, promising huge spending on “levelling up” their constituencies. Sunak, who has promised to cut debt, is simultaneously being urged by the Tory right to cut taxes. “Rishi will show some leg on tax,” says one minister, who admits that Sunak’s economic room for fiscal manoeuvre is limited.
Sunak is also caught in the middle of a battle over whether to put culture wars at the heart of the campaign. Lee Anderson, a former coal miner appointed by Sunak as deputy Tory chair, wants to prop up the red wall seats by fighting the election on a “mix of culture wars and the trans debate”. But as Levido has identified, this risks alienating liberal-inclined Tory voters in affluent southern seats. Sunak would appear to agree: “He’s not a culture wars person,” says a Downing Street insider.
But that’s unlikely to deter some on the Tory right. Iain Duncan Smith, the Thatcherite former Conservative leader, says Sunak should “relish the fight” with his “woke” opponents: “Labour is on the side of minorities that want to shut down debate, attack you if you say something they disagree with, ‘no platform’ you,” he told the FT.
One issue where Sunak believes he can open up a wedge with Labour is by taking a more “pragmatic” approach to reaching Britain’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, avoiding “hair shirt” measures and coming up with policies to help motorists, although some Conservative MPs fear he could alienate environmentally conscious younger voters. Every which way he turns, it seems that Sunak’s route brings electoral peril.
Despite being branded by Tory campaign chiefs as a “change candidate”, Sunak is still burdened with the legacy of recent Conservative rule. He will have to resist that most powerful of forces in politics: time for a change. Some Tory MPs say the mood among voters is no longer anger. Rather “they just aren’t listening any more”. Tory MPs reported the same mood on the eve of the electoral wipeout of 1997, when Tony Blair’s Labour swept to power.
Recent elections, not to mention the 2016 Brexit referendum, have had a habit of turning up unexpected results. But the 2024 contest appears to offer the electorate a choice that hasn’t been seen in recent elections. Starmer took over as his party’s leader three years ago in circumstances not entirely dissimilar to Sunak. Labour were in disarray after a chastening 2019 election defeat which included losing a number of traditional Labour seats to the Tories for the first time. Replacing the polarising far-left veteran Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer has proved a steady pair of hands, turning the party around to the extent where it is in a position to capitalise on the Tories’ woes.
But his cautious style of leadership, like Sunak’s, has yet to convince many. To some extent, both are considered the candidate least likely to mess up. Sir Gary Streeter, who has been a Tory MP for 30 years, believes there are three words that explain why this isn’t a rerun of the 1997 election. “Sir. Keir Starmer.”
In an era when anaemic economic growth and high debt have severely limited room for political manoeuvre, Sunak and Starmer both offer technocratic solutions. But Streeter argues that one could glimpse the dynamics of a future election campaign by watching Sunak swat aside “stodgy Starmer” at their weekly jousts at Prime Minister’s Questions. Does a battle with another slick if unspectacular leader give the prime minister a fighting chance?
Polls show that the sober Starmer is less popular than his party. Sunak remains more popular than his, though that isn’t saying much. “We will fight a presidential campaign,” says one Tory strategist, arguing that Sunak will flourish as the underdog, while Starmer could wilt under the pressure of being the favourite. They believe that the 43-year-old Sunak will also appear more vigorous than Starmer on the campaign trail, even if the football-playing Labour leader hardly gives off Joe Biden vibes. In July, Sunak made a joke about Starmer’s age, claiming he was 61. In true technocrat form, the Labour leader noted he was actually 60.
Sunak’s team argues that most voters have not yet focused on the choice facing them. An Opinium poll last month found that 55 per cent of those who intended to vote for a party at the next election say they could change their mind. They believe that once the PM switches his focus from fixing problems to the election campaign, he will approach the task with the same careful attention to detail: scouring data, picking out Labour’s weak spots, hammering home areas where the Conservatives appear to have an advantage. Sunak, it seems, will keep following his meticulous path, no matter how narrow it seems.
On board another long-haul flight last week, this time en route to India for the G20 summit, the prime minister again briefed the assembled reporters. With the clock ticking towards midnight, he rejected the narrative that time was running out. As he nursed a strong cup of tea in his trademark No 10 mug, his bloodshot eyes and five o’clock shadow gave him a certain grit. “I am hungry to win,” he told the journalists.
George Parker is the FT’s political editor. Lucy Fisher is the FT’s Whitehall editor
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