Prime Minister Rishi Sunak came to power amidst one of the most significant periods of turmoil in British politics. The third PM within a single calendar year, Sunak ascended to the office following the resignation of Liz Truss and King Charles III’s invitation to form a government. Previously, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sunak is the first person-of-colour and of Indian origin who has been able to reach the top-most parliamentary position in the United Kingdom.
The post of Prime Minister in the United Kingdom has been haunted by scandal and chaos for the past several years. Conservatives will have held power for 14 years by the time general elections are held in 2024, and in that time the top office has been occupied by 5 different Prime Ministers. David Cameron, the first in this line, resigned following the outcome of the 2016 referendum in which Britons voted to leave the EU. Though surfacing years after his resignation, the Greensill scandal over political lobbying of Cameron by the financial company Greensill Capital was another blemish on the Conservative’s career.
His successor Theresa May also resigned under the shadow of Brexit, unable to use her relatively better record in environmental policy and other fields to her aid. She was succeeded by Boris Johnson, perhaps the most politically contentious figure within this run-up. Compared in many ways to Donald Trump in the United States, Johnson consolidated his initial power with the largest victory for the Conservative party in over 30 years in a snap general election he called in December 2019. However, things soon went south and Johnson’s mismanagement of the COVID crisis in Britain, Partygate, the Pincher Scandal and the subsequent mass resignation of top Conservative MPs (including Rishi Sunak) from government positions led to his resignation from power.
The next in line was Liz Truss, whose tenure lasted less than 2 months between September and October 2022, earning her the position of the shortest-serving PM in the UK. With the death of Queen Elizabeth II, much of Truss’ ability was handicapped by the period of mourning, and her one major attempt to deal with the cost-of-living crisis with an ill-informed financial liberalisation and tax-cut package was reviled and then reversed shortly after, leading to her resignation.
Hailing from the Conservative (Tory) Party, Sunak faced the daunting task of dealing with an increasingly divided post-Brexit Britain and severe economic and political difficulties caused by the conflict in Ukraine. How he has fared in doing so is not favourably viewed by many in the country. Many feel that his strongly technical and “pragmatic” leadership style has made him akin to a manager, and many feel that what he is managing is really the “decline” of his own party in British politics. The criticism from within his own party comes largely on the basis of the perception that he is not right-wing enough, supporting policies such as tax hikes and government expenditure even during his time as the Chancellor. Much of this comes from supporters of the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who are also among the most vocal critics of Sunak.
The criticism from outside his party is the opposite. As the Economist said, Sunak’s position as conservative is far beyond that of his contemporaries – even Tories. Rishi Sunak’s commitment to environmental concerns is doubted heavily by commenters, and many argue that the only reason he has not cut taxes yet is that the United Kingdom cannot afford to do so currently. Furthermore, He has taken an extremely tough stance on immigration and on trans-rights, overshadowed in British media coverage by the constant focus on economics. Inflation remains high in the UK, still suffering the externalities from the conflict in Ukraine.
The next British general elections are due in 2024. Local elections so far are not spelling good fortune for the Tories. The ones in May 2023 succeeded in cutting away at their power, as more than a thousand council seats were lost to other parties. By-elections held in October 2023 also led to the Conservatives losing two key parliamentary seats that had been Tory strongholds for years to the Labour Party. By-elections have been a thorn in the side for the Conservative Party, having lost 11 out of the “last 12 in this parliament, with half of the contests caused by resignations” of their own seat-holders. Opinion polls reflect these sentiments, with the Labour Party comfortably ahead of the Conservatives as the time to the next general elections shortens.
Rishi Sunak’s role as the last Prime Minister in this decade-long Conservative debacle seems cemented, despite his efforts to change the tide against his Party and himself. As he tours a Middle East ravaged by conflict, his home country remains firmly in the grip of inflation and the aftermath of the actions of his predecessors. The election of the Labour Party (the most likely candidate) in the 2024 general elections would be a fresh breath of air, at least at first. Discontent with Sunak’s policies is rife on both sides of the political divide, and while some may argue that most of his ‘failures’ have to do with events out of his control, that is rarely a concession granted to an incumbent on the electoral battlefield.
Taut Bataut – is a researcher and writer that publishes on South Asian geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.