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Opinion: Rishi Sunak: Up The Creek Without A Paddle

Opinion: Rishi Sunak: Up The Creek Without A Paddle

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It doesn’t happen very often, but now and again the political tide turns so decisively against an incumbent government that there’s little the ruling party can do beyond damage limitation.

Think back a decade ago. After ten years of Congress rule, the public mood had turned decisively against the party. Manmohan Singh was seen as a good man leading a bad government – personally admirable but politically inept and paralysed by the competing forces within his own party. Narendra Modi was the coming man, offering an energy and vision that the governing party simply couldn’t match. The result: Congress was swept from power and lost more than three-quarters of its seats in the Lok Sabha.

Going Down The Congress Way?

Something similar is now happening in British politics. Rishi Sunak is on the brink of a catastrophic election defeat. The Conservatives have been in power for fourteen years, but fresh opinion polls suggest they will be humbled in the coming election, losing up to two-thirds of their seats in the UK Parliament.

Rishi Sunak continues to put a brave face on his appalling polling, but his party has just about given up. Conservatives know they are about to be evicted from power, and many of their MPs are either scouting for new jobs or feuding viciously about who should lead the party after Sunak’s almost inevitable departure.

In Britain’s peculiar, and distinctly dilapidated, political system, the prime minister has a lot of discretion about when a general election is held. The last possible date is in January next year; the expectation is that the election will be in October or November this year. So, a note of caution – a lot can happen in that time: wars, scandals, crises and all kinds of unexpected events. Nothing is certain in politics. But if you look at the odds that betting companies are offering on the election outcome – often a very reliable indicator, as they lose a lot of money if they get it wrong – they are putting the odds on the Labour opposition becoming the largest party in Parliament at more than 90%.

What Really Went Wrong For Sunak

So what has gone wrong for Rishi Sunak in the eighteen months since he became prime minister? He had a lot going for him. He’s seen as young, earnest and honest; in his time in office, inflation has fallen sharply and real wages have begun to grow; after the chaos of Boris Johnson’s years in power, he has restored a measure of stability and competence.

But Sunak does not offer a political vision; he is indecisive, he presides over a deeply divided party, he has made a few appallingly bad decisions, and, above all, his political instincts are poor. When a prime minister makes public pledges and fails to deliver them, that really damages his standing. Rishi Sunak promised to cut the huge waiting lists for treatment in the publicly-funded health service; those waiting lists have continued to lengthen. He pledged to ‘stop the boats’ that surreptitiously carry illegal immigrants across the Channel to England’s south coast; those deeply hazardous sea crossings are still happening.

Sunak has tried to appease the populist right-wing of the Conservative Party by backing out of some key targets to tackle climate change and abandoning an expensive high-speed rail link from London to the north of England. Those decisions were not popular with the voters and didn’t satisfy Sunak’s critics within the party. In political terms, it’s a lose-lose.

A Resurgent Opposition And A Threat From The Right

His biggest problem is that the opposition has been reborn. The Labour Party, which spent several years heading so far left that it barely appeared on the political spectrum, has been refashioned as a pragmatic, centre-left party with a conspicuously competent and cautious leader, Keir Starmer. The Labour Party is once again seen as fit to govern.

To double Sunak’s difficulties, he also faces a threat from the right. The Reform Party, which was born out of the successful campaign to pull Britain out of the European Union, is now demanding much tighter restrictions on immigration and an emphasis on English nationalism. Its slogan of ‘Let’s Make Britain Great’ bears an uncomfortable echo of Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’. As many as one in four Conservative voters seem tempted to transfer their allegiance to Reform – sufficient to sink an already listing ship.

If the Conservatives lose anything like as badly as the opinion polls suggest, Sunak is almost certain to resign as party leader. There’s speculation that he might leave politics altogether. And then the Conservative Party will have to embark on the long haul of reinventing itself and rebuilding its political profile and policies. How long could that take? Well, ask a Congress wallah.

(Andrew Whitehead is an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham in the UK and a former BBC India and Political correspondent.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.


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