It’s a year since Rishi Sunak swept into Downing Street, promising to be less of an obvious disaster than Liz Truss. In this essential Critic Deep Dive, our political team takes you inside Downing Street as the prime minister struggles to keep the government on course.
By Robert Hutton, Bob Hutton, Roberta Hutton, Rab McHutton and Rob O’Hutton
Rishi Sunak was in the Middle East when news of last week’s by-election defeats came through. While his team was despondent, the prime minister immediately switched into action mode.
“The first thing he did was fire up his laptop and create his own spreadsheet to confirm we really had lost both seats,” said one person who was in the room. “That’s Rishi all over. He’s always got to dig into the numbers himself.” After a 20-minute interval in which Sunak insisted that the Conservatives had in fact held the constituency of Tamworth, someone spotted that he’d missed a 1 in the Labour total. It was at this point that panic set in.
It’s a year since Sunak succeeded Liz Truss after winning the backing of Tory MPs on a manifesto of not being an obviously dangerous lunatic. Many Conservatives thought this would be enough to win voters back. Instead, the party has continued to trail in the polls. Last week’s defeats were the latest blow.
“Rishi doesn’t understand it,” one confidant said. “We looked at the focus groups telling us that everyone hates the Tories, and we leaned into it. Our entire conference message was that we were the worst government in living memory. Rishi personally spent an hour slagging off every living Tory prime minister. And what thanks does he get?”
Although Sunak had anticipated that he would be criticised for cancelling the high speed rail link to Manchester, he had expected to get more credit for the list of nebulous and in some cases imaginary transport projects he announced in their place. Friends acknowledge he was naïve not to realise that this would be spotted. “He simply hadn’t heard of these places. How was he to know that people who lived there would have?”
The prime minister was, they add, especially stung by the way that some of his predecessors criticised his speech, in which he blamed them personally for all the country’s problems. “He really didn’t expect them to push back. Though now I think about it, perhaps we should have seen that coming.”
There is frustration in Number 10 that the prime minister isn’t getting more credit for the air of calm and competence he has brought to the building. “Take the bin collection,” says one staffer who has seen several prime ministers come and go. “On a Monday night, Rishi always knows whether this week is paper and glass or non-recyclables, and he always makes sure the staff have put the right boxes out. It wasn’t like that with Boris. We had to stop him just stuffing everything into the litter bins on Whitehall on his way to PMQs. And don’t get me started on Liz Truss. She had a ‘theory’ about the binmen.”
Indeed, those whose jobs depend on Sunak’s success are effusive about his qualities. “The thing about Rishi is that he’s an actual genius,” said one aide. “Like, this one time, my computer screen was completely frozen, and usually I’d just have had to go out and buy a new computer, but he was like ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’, and it worked! He knows more about this stuff than Bill Gates. He should be running NASA.”
On the world stage too, people who work for Sunak insist he cuts an impressive figure. They point to his meeting last week with Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. “The PM sent all of us out, because he wanted to speak to him one on one, and when we came back half an hour later, he’d shown the Crown Prince how to change the ringtone on his phone, and was explaining where you get the first Legendary outfit in the new Assassin’s Creed. We could tell MBS was really impressed.”
Although they know time is running out before the next election, Sunak’s team still believe they can turn things around. “We need the public to see the Rishi that we see. The steady hand on the tiller. The quiet competence. The guy who goes round the building each evening making sure there’s paper in all the printers.”
Not all Tory strategists agree that the recent by-elections are definitive. “A lot of our voters stayed at home,” said one. “Perhaps their front doors were jammed, or they were feeling poorly. What if, next time around, that happened to Labour voters instead? That would change the result completely.”
In the coming months, Downing Street officials are looking for ways to stamp Sunak’s personality onto the government, as soon as they have worked out what it is. One widely-discussed idea is moving Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt. “It’s a big problem that we’ve got a bland nobody in the job who was only appointed because the government was blowing up and the party was desperate,” said one of Sunak’s advisers. “Sorry, who were we talking about?”
If Hunt does go, many expect Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho to get the job. “She’s risen without trace, she sucks up to whoever’s in charge, and no one knows what she thinks about anything. Rishi sees a lot of himself in her.”
Additional reporting: Tim Hutton, Len Hutton, Betty Hutton, Lord Hutton
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