Rishi Sunak is playing a risky game by making this a presidential campaign

Andy Davey cartoon
Andy Davey cartoon

After announcing the general election to his Cabinet, Rishi Sunak’s ministers banged the table with pretend approval as he walked out of the room. The feeling most had was of stunned disbelief, but worse was to come. They were all invited to stay in the room and watch the Prime Minister on a large TV as he popped outside No 10 to announce the election. Blood drained from ministerial faces as Sunak’s suit steadily soaked up the rain and his words were almost drowned out by nearby Labour campaign music. “We all had to pretend we weren’t seeing what we all saw,” says one present. “It was a shambles.”

Sunak had gathered a few Cabinet members in advance to break the news. He told them he had already been to see the King to seek the dissolution of Parliament (traditionally, this part is done last), so he was presenting a fait accompli. This closed down discussion: it would be pointless trying to talk him out of it.

Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, still told him that this was the wrong time for an election. David Cameron said it was “bold” which, as every Yes Minister fan knows, is Westminster-speak for “madness”.

The Prime Minister had two other points. One is the real answer to the “why now” question: he no longer thinks things will get better over the summer, so sees no advantage in waiting. He didn’t say more, but internal forecasts envisage NHS waiting lists rising for at least two months, thereby breaking one of his now-infamous five pledges. The small boats situation is getting worse.

Ministers also learnt that this is to be a presidential campaign, so Sunak vs Starmer rather than Tory vs Labour. It’s not clear what role (if any) the rest of the Cabinet will play.

Lord Cameron was promised a seat next to Sunak at the main launch event in the evening, but ended up next to the placard-waving activists. He might have mused, as he watched, that Sunak’s decision to run a presidential campaign is also “bold”.

A popular leader may run a personal campaign, but Sunak’s approval ratings are worse than almost any prime minister in postwar history. “His last campaign was so bad that he lost to Liz Truss,” says one Cabinet member. “If he can’t win an election amongst Tories, how does he expect to win nationally?”

Sunak has positioned himself as someone who speaks by actions – specifically, the five pledges he made to great fanfare last year. “No tricks. No ambiguity,” he said at the time. “We’re either delivering for you or we’re not.” But debt has risen, not fallen. Ditto NHS waiting lists. The small boats have not been stopped. The economy, in the form of the all-important GDP per capita, has shrunk. Five pledges, four failures.

His sole success – the halving of inflation – was forecast to happen when Boris Johnson was prime minister. Holding an election in November created space for things to come good: waiting lists, migration, even the Rwanda plan. But it seems Sunak thinks there’s a greater chance of unpleasant surprises: mayhem in prisons; hospital implosion, more defections.

Once you think the summer will have more bad news than good, an early election is logical. It’s also a counsel of despair.
Sunak’s original plan was to demonstrate that his leadership skills and his tao of government would yield hard results. He’d succeed where Boris Johnson failed.

But one after one, such hopes evaporated. So he would be running a presidential campaign without very many personal achievements, his main hope being his ability to outclass the plodding Starmer in television debates.

His fellow MPs have personal reasons for dismay. Lord Cameron now finds the curtain falling on his Foreign Secretary act after just six months. Michael Gove will be turfed out of his £25 million grace-and-favour apartment. Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, was quite emotional during Cabinet as he’s standing down and had been looking forward to his swansong. Most see this election as the charge of the Tory Light Brigade, with polls suggesting barely a quarter of Conservative MPs will be back after the election.

This is perhaps why, when Sunak called colleagues after the May local election disaster, most told him he should rule out a summer election. If there was a chance that things could improve by November, they said, best wait until them. That’s why, when the rumours of an election circulated, Cabinet members were laughing it off as ridiculous gossip. Those who had spoken to the PM about election timing had thought he accepted their point.

In ordinary times, there would now be mutiny – but there’s no point if, as they all expect, the captain will be gone within six weeks. When Sunak first ran for leader, he joked about this. It wasn’t true, he said, that he’d be on the next flight to California if he lost. Why not? The result came out on Monday, he said, and flights are cheapest on Wednesdays.

As it turned out, he stayed and was ready when Liz Truss imploded. But few think he’ll stay this time, so a shadow Tory leadership battle will be a sub-plot to this election.

My own feeling is that, while Sunak may not be one of the best prime ministers, he’s one of the best people to have been prime minister. His ability, energy, sense of duty and basic decency are striking to those who know him. But admirers, like me, have to acknowledge that polls put us in a small, almost cultish minority. Johnson, Blair, Brown, Thatcher, Callaghan: none had such low job-satisfaction ratings. To fight a presidential-style campaign on such personal ratings is, as Cameron would say, bold.

Keir Starmer is less popular than Labour, so framing the debate around him in a presidential way will be tempting for the Tories. But the case still needs to be made for Conservatism – as a party and a worldview. Many of those voting Tory won’t do so in the belief that Sunak will be back in No 10 but to give the party a crash-landing it might recover from. The Prime Minister would do more to help in that aim by sharing the campaign limelight with his colleagues and party.

If an epically unpopular Prime Minister makes the election all about him, they could well end up with the latter option.