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Sunak Has Major Issues – But a Silver Lining

Comment editor Fintan Hogan examines the political situation of Rishi Sunak. Can he replicate the miracle of 1992 or is the landslide of 1997 now inevitable?

A polarising Conservative leader is entangled in a series of scandals. Weeks and months of rolling revelations pass. Pressure on Number 10 mounts. Government net approval drops to -50%. Tory MPs finally cut their losses and drop the boss. The former Chancellor, only recently lifted out of political obscurity, takes the lead. Seen as a ‘steady hand’, his job is to right the ship in the midst of a political storm.

The Conservative party must be wracked with déjà vu. This is the story of Rishi Sunak’s accession, but it’s not the first time it’s been told. Margaret Thatcher was succeeded by John Major in exactly the same fashion. Huge electoral win, slow-burning public discontent, a fall from grace and the Tory corps desperately latching on to an uncontroversial new vision. 2022 and 1990 are twins.

Liz Truss’ brief reign interrupts this smooth analogy. But as the equivalent of a political sneeze (indeed, the lifespan of a lettuce), it hardly alters the comparison markedly. Truss was selected by Tory members but their decision was quickly shown for the error it was. The MPs’ favourite was then installed on the throne, just as in 1990.

How did Major turn the political fortunes of his party around and win an unexpected victory in the 1992 election? He had just over a year to rectify his political position. Sunak still has up to two years before the next general election. Any heady declarations of Labour’s inevitable win should be checked – lightning might strike twice. But the strengths of the 1992 campaign became lead weights in 1997. Stability and continuity go out of fashion fast. So will Sunak replicate the political CPR of Major’s first election or the cardiac arrest of his second?

Major won an 11-seat majority in 1992 despite net government approval of -36%. This success was everything that backbench MPs had hoped for when they appointed him – the public’s approval of him personally overweighed their dislike of his government and, more importantly, the appeal of the opposition. His reputation for competence offset his association with the then-devastatingly unpopular Thatcher.

Repealing the divisive poll tax was a handbrake turn from the Tories, undoing the biggest political misjudgement of the Thatcher administration. The flat tax on every adult was seen by most political opponents (and many allies) as a deliberate assault on the working class. In this regard, Sunak is not as lucky as Major was. The Johnson administration was brought down by personal ineptitude, not a political decision. The policy vacuum which characterised his predecessor leaves no way for him to carve his own tenure out as politically distinct. While Major managed to cut himself loose from his predecessor, the rock bottom approval ratings which Johnson suffered are likely to anchor down the Sunak administration. He is not ‘out of sight’ or ‘out of mind’ for the British public. The Covid-PM has given the Tories a serious case of ‘Long Boris’.

Without a clean break with his predecessor, Sunak has (thus far) failed to record the popularity bounce that Major did. He hardly has the personal profile either. Major, ‘the boy from Brixton’, was a ‘man of the people’ figure – Sunak is a near-billionaire who was attempting to claim US citizenship until 2021. While a clever Tory campaign video entitled ‘John Major, The Movie’ followed the PM around the city of his upbringing, Sunak’s attempt to replicate Major’s backseat persona led to a £100 fine for not wearing a seatbelt and days of derision from the public and the press.

Indeed, the first three months of Sunak’s premiership recall not the 1992 election, but the Tories’ demolition of 1997. A triumphant Tony Blair then swept Labour into power with a landslide 89-seat majority. The Conservatives’ vote share crumbled to 31% in the most substantial electoral defeat since the 1940s. But Sunak has never even enjoyed a voting intention share above 27%. If the election was held tomorrow, this would be Armageddon for the Conservatives. The expected 227 lost Tory seats would hand Labour a 90-seat majority and Sunak a P45.

16 September, 1992, is considered by some to be the day that lost Major the 1997 election – 1,689 days in advance. On ‘Black Wednesday’ the pound crashed out of the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) largely due to speculative and predatory investors. Sterling’s devaluation was estimated to cost the country £3.3 billion. This came to symbolise Tory mismanagement for the next half decade. Major never lived down the ERM disaster. It shattered the argument that the party had used relentlessly against Labour at every election: that they couldn’t be trusted with your money. Government approval plunged to -57%.

But the Truss government decided to one-up the ERM crisis. The mini-budget delivered by Chancellor Kwarteng was supposed to deliver a ‘fiscal stimulus’ of £45 billion in (unfunded) tax cuts – instead, it cost the country an estimated £30 billion. Like a line of dominos prodded by a petulant child, stocks tumbled, investors scampered, Tory competence was reduced to cinders and government approval hit -69%. Major never recovered his credibility despite five years of strong growth. With inflation approaching 10% and growth projected at -1.3% for 2023, there is no chance that the Tory party can regain its economic prestige in time for the next election.

Not only are none of the advantages which Major conveniently enjoyed in 1992 available now, but the misfortunes of the 1997 campaign are afoot. Stories of sleaze, sex and scandal plagued the government throughout the mid-1990s and made Cabinet a revolving door of tabloid personalities. The parliamentary Tory party is doing its best to repeat the trick – think Paterson’s resignation, Raab’s bullying, Patel’s fanaticism, Hancock’s affair, and so on.

Despite Sunak’s promise to deliver “integrity, decency and leadership” throughout his government, close ally and former Chancellor Nadim Zahawi has been sacked over a £5 million ‘settlement’ with the taxman. Home Secretary Suella Braverman continues her deliberately polarising Rwanda refugee plan, a policy slated by fellow Tory MP Sir Gary Streeter in an exclusive interview for Roar News. And lest we forget that ‘integrity and leadership’ did not get then-Chancellor Sunak out of a fixed-penalty notice for attending Downing Street parties during the pandemic.

PM Sunak is now sipping his poisoned chalice at last-chance saloon. But he has managed to dodge the bullet which finally finished Major: the leader of the opposition. Keir Starmer is a boring man. More insipid than inspiring, he has a politician’s brain trapped in a banker’s personality. On the one hand, he does not have the polarising effect of his forerunner Jeremy Corbyn. But on the other, he is not one to whip up the public into an indignant rage. Young, fresh-faced and energetic, Blair took the political scene by storm in 1995. Starmer, in stark contrast, is no firebrand. Our beleaguered, greying PM should remember this silver lining.

While Blair enjoyed popularity ratings of +22%, Starmer now sits at -6%. Academics still disagree if Labour would have won in 1997 if not for his personal influence and appeal – and they certainly would not have won so decisively. Correspondingly, Labour’s loss in 1992 was largely attributed to then-leader Neil Kinnock’s unpopularity with the public, just as 2019 was a by-product of Corbyn’s disastrous personal appeal.

The gap between the parties is large, but not unassailable. If a substantial slice of luck falls his way, Sunak may avoid further scandal and watch the Labour party suffer in his place. If people forget – as they so often do – the repeated political disasters of recent times, the upcoming election will not be so clear-cut. If Labour are beset by scandal and intrigue, the press will smell blood and present the opposition as deceitful hypocrites. While Starmer is still the runaway favourite, don’t bet the house on it quite yet.

Sunak’s best plan is to weather the next two years and cross his fingers. The next general election will be Russian roulette for the Tories – except with five of the six chambers loaded. But hope remains. If they do miraculously manage to find the blank, it’s unlikely that the opposition leader has the ammunition to finish them. As in 1992, it’s not beyond the Labour party to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Mr Sunak can still hope for a Major stroke of luck.

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