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LONDON — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak considers himself a problem solver. But the task of defining his own leadership style might prove too much even for him.
With the Tories lagging far behind in the polls and suffering two heavy defeats in July’s by-elections, the party is demanding a ‘reset’ of both Sunak’s approach to government and his broader view of the country .
MPs and other members of the Conservative Party say they would like to see the Prime Minister demonstrate more aggressively and passionately that he is on the side of voters and is determined to make a difference in their lives.
Last week’s long-awaited cabinet reshuffle turned out to be a failure, more limited in scope than initially expected. A more sweeping reorganization has been postponed until late fall, according to two people close to Sunak’s thinking.
For some, it is further evidence of Sunak’s overly cautious approach, as time is running out before next year’s general election.
“This is nonsense,” said a generally loyal Tory MP. “He said he set out a vision in September when he spoke to us at the end of the (summer) legislature. What changed ?
Sunak under pressure
Sunak’s supporters are keen to point out that he has won big victories since taking office less than a year ago.
He found a solution to Northern Ireland’s trade impasse, began to forge a new image for Britain on the international stage, presided over the slowing of inflation and passed a bill flagship aimed at reducing illegal immigration.
But those limited successes may not be enough for voters. Two-thirds of people think Sunak has accomplished “little or nothing” in his time as prime minister so far, according to a POLITICO poll by public relations firm Redfield and Wilton.
“If we’re asking people to vote Conservative again in difficult circumstances, I don’t think ‘we managed to put out the fires we started’ is a compelling enough reason,” said Henry Hill of the popular website curator CuratorHome. .
Each conservative seems to have a different view of the new path Sunak should follow.
A former cabinet minister said Sunak must come up with “plans to increase prosperity, improve security and scale up”, while another Tory MP said the prime minister must elicit an “emotional response” from the share of voters.
A former government aide warned that Sunak ‘doesn’t realize how bad things are really bad’ in the country as a whole, while a second former adviser suggested Sunak never really confronted the reasons for which he lost the leadership election to Liz Truss last summer.
The two former collaborators said he needed a “change of tone” to be much more visible and aggressive.
And so to the “reset”
The main options for Sunak are to revamp either his behind-the-scenes team, his front team or his own style. Ultimately, he could aim for all three.
An internal split in Downing Street between two approaches – ‘steady as it goes’ and ‘no gloves’ – has now broken in favor of the latter, with the departure of Sunak communications director Amber de Botton, Friday.
Others in Number 10 saw her as lacking political edge, with two colleagues noting that it was during her summer vacation that communications became ‘more political’ on the thorny subject of taxing high-polluting motorists .
Sunak’s press secretary Nerissa Chesterfield, chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith and political secretary James Forsyth are among those advocating for change. Other veterans, including former Matt Hancock adviser Jamie Njoku-Goodwin and Cameron-era tough man Adam Atashzai, have been recruited.
These moves, along with last week’s mini cabinet reshuffle, are widely recognized as an opening step rather than Sunak’s end game, with more sweeping changes in government expected ahead of the King’s speech in November. , when Sunak presents his final legislative programme. before the elections next year.
The wider reshuffle will be watched closely by MPs for signs of a more fighting spirit from Number 10 after mixed reviews of the nominations last week. He has been criticized for promoting MPs from safer seats in the south of England and for giving Grant Shapps – considered one of his most powerful domestic communicators – an overseas role.
Can Rishi be revived?
The Prime Minister’s allies have always claimed he has a good impression on voters – hence his persistence in holding informal town hall-style events known as ‘PM Connect’ – and remain dismissive of the idea according to which people would be put off by Sunak and his family’s personal wealth. .
But the Redfield and Wilton survey found that 42 per cent of people view the Prime Minister as likeable, compared to 46 per cent who don’t, while more than half of people think he should take public transport due to his well-known penchant for private air travel.
The problem for Sunak is that historically, prime minister “resets” frequently run into a problem of authenticity in the eyes of voters, according to those who have tried it in the past.
“To think that somehow you can inject aspects of personality that don’t exist naturally – it’s unlikely to lead to the results you would like,” a former Tory spokesperson said. of Downing Street.
John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former political secretary – and now senior adviser to public relations firm BCW – agrees. “You can’t really turn a technocrat into a junkyard,” he warned.
McTernan suggested Sunak should work on his ability to engage with voters ahead of the campaign trail. “I don’t think Rishi has a style he’s worked on for connection issues – when questioned the first thing he does is turn smiley and condescending. And if he insists on a problem, he becomes irritable.
Another lever Sunak has could be to send a new message to the public about what he really stands for, with the upcoming Conservative Party conference in October being the obvious time to do so.
But, as CuratorHome’s Hill notes, to sell a new message “it takes something. And he doesn’t have it yet.
ELECTORAL POLL IN THE NATIONAL PARLIAMENT OF THE UNITED KINGDOM
For more survey data from across Europe, visit POLICY Survey of surveys.