Rishi Sunak passes the 200-day milestone tomorrow. Not a huge achievement, but more than four times as long in Number 10 as his predecessor.
It’s as good a moment as any to assess the performance of the fifth successive Conservative prime minister – not least because it’s also his 43rd birthday today.
Rejected by the membership in favour of Liz Truss, Mr Sunak won at the second attempt after Truss’ premiership imploded, but in a ballot only of MPs. As he was brutally reminded by Sir Keir Starmer last week, Sunak lacks the legitimacy of his own mandate or a track record as an election winner.
He has, however, reminded his party, exhausted after the years of psychodramas of the Truss and Johnson era, that basic competence has its attractions.
That’s not to say that he hasn’t faced challenges. He’s lost three members of his cabinet (Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi and Dominic Raab), faced the biggest wave of public sector strikes since the 1970s, and the NHS waiting list has now passed 7 million.
Weak economic growth and stubbornly high inflation mean living standards continue to fall and productivity shows no signs of recovering to pre-global financial crash levels. This is not a feel-good era.
For all that, Mr Sunak is generally regarded as having done a creditable job so far of at least stabilising his party. The Windsor Framework was widely acknowledged as a triumph and sets Mr Sunak on a course to solving the problems Brexit caused Northern Ireland (an outcome neither Mr Johnson, Ms Truss nor Theresa May achieved). Unlike his predecessors, he successfully faced down the ERG faction in his party, splitting it from the rest of the parliamentary party. And while the Budget was announced against a tough economic backdrop, it was prepared and delivered with an unusual lack of leaks and disasters.
Mr Sunak has admitted that losing more than 1,000 seats in the local elections was “disappointing”, and the result will no doubt restore confidence in Labour’s hopes of winning the next general election. However, how much of this result is down to Mr Sunak himself? After all, he has only been in charge for 200 days. Whilst he does indeed lead the party, it would be a mistake to assume that the Conservative Party is down and out with Mr Sunak at the helm.
In what was a chaotic 2022, Mr Sunak had the task of steadying the ship, restoring trust in the Conservative Party, and providing the country with more stability – and, on these criteria, so far, he is succeeding.
Mr Sunak’s performances at PMQs have improved too. There have been fewer of the PR missteps, like apparently not knowing how to use a contactless bank card – although he must watch his use of helicopters.
A Redfield & Wilton poll conducted following the local elections last week suggested that, despite their triumphant win, Labour’s vote share has fallen by 5 per cent since just prior to the local elections, to 41 per cent. This is its lowest level since August 2022 under Boris Johnson, and the twelve-point gap between Labour and the Tories is the closest it’s been since Mr Sunak became Prime Minister back in October. On Mr Sunak’s one-hundredth day, the gap was twenty points. Progress, therefore, is clearly being made.
With a maximum of 18 months until he must call a general election, time is running out for Mr Sunak to turn positive trends on his personal ratings into election-winning momentum for the whole Conservative party. And while Sunak’s seemingly higher levels of competence may be a relief after the chaos of recent years, will it be enough to get voters to the polls? Labour’s recovery in Scotland and recent evidence of more tactical voting than ever before, add to the problems facing Mr Sunak in the 500 or so days he has left of this parliament (if it goes to the full five-year limit). A strong start, then, but much, much more to do.