Is time running out for Sunak to earn voters’ trust?

By Jonathan Millman

Prime minister Rishi Sunak said on entering Downing Street ‘trust is earned and I will earn yours’. A mega poll by The Sun and YouGov released earlier this week indicates that after six months in the job, Sunak is beginning to do just that.

The poll shows Sunak is beginning to win back the support of the broad coalition of voters who gave the Tories a sweeping majority less than four years ago. More than half of 2019 Tory voters (51 per cent) believe that the Conservatives can turn it around.

Waking up this morning however, 2019 Tory voters might feel more like the 40 per cent of the public who believe the Tories are done for at the next election.

That’s because although Sunak has edged slightly ahead of Sir Keir Starmer on who would make the best leader in the latest poll, the Tory party has lost out at the ballot box – losing key councils in both the red wall and seats in southern England.

For the first time since 1998, the people of Medway decided that their local services will be better run by Labour than the Tories. The Liberal Democrats were also celebrating success, taking Windsor and Maidenhead, which covers former prime minister Theresa May’s constituency.

Local elections can be hard to untangle and do not determine the party fortunes nationally. Today’s results will make Sunak’s job of managing the party much harder, however.

Tory members didn’t get to vote for their party leader in the autumn remember and many Tory councillors who lost in the elections will likely be furious, and feel it is the national government’s fault, not their own. Today’s results will only add fire to ongoing internal party battles on key issues like housing targets, whether the UK should reject the European Human Rights Convention, and the ‘Brexit betrayal’.

Meanwhile Sir Keir Starmer is declaring that the “road to Britain” is being “paved with “Labour wins”. These results give the Labour party momentum and show that the broad coalition of voters who gave the Tories a landslide majority in 2019 is fragmenting.

If Sunak is to close the gaps in the polls, where Labour remains ahead by about 43 per cent to the Tories’ 29, he is going to have to earn the trust of those who he just lost at the local election ballot box.

The current approach is to demonstrate progress is being made on Sunak’s five priorities by December 2023, but more will be needed to excite voters if the Conservatives are going to convince them to vote Tory again in autumn 2024.

We know it can take a long time for positive offers to the country to cut through and secure voter buy-in – Starmer can attest to that. For Sunak to earn voters’ trust again, it’s important he begin not only navigating internal party politics effectively – he must also offer more positive reasons for the British public to decide to back him and his party.