Reports of Sunak’s foul mood in No 10 echo the final days of other dying administrations

<span>Rishi Sunak has found it impossibly hard to turn around a sea change in public opinion.</span><span>Photograph: Daniel Leal/PA</span>
Rishi Sunak has found it impossibly hard to turn around a sea change in public opinion.Photograph: Daniel Leal/PA

If Rishi Sunak was able to set aside four hours to see the 84-year-old Sir Ian McKellen playing Falstaff in London’s West End, he would have a powerful reminder not just of the longevity of some careers but also how uneasily some wear the crown.

By many accounts, Sunak is struggling with the prospect that his brief stint wearing the Conservative crown will come to a shuddering halt this autumn.

It has led to another rash of stories of a foul mood in Downing Street, including outbursts of Sunak peevishness and petulance, sometimes reflected in interviews in which he expresses exasperation at the stupidity of his interviewer.

He would not be the first to suffer the impatience of office.

It was Roy Jenkins who once wisely observed that the first attribute of a successful prime minister is not a first-class mind, but a first-class temperament. Too many prime ministers have eaten themselves up, railing at the public’s inability to see how their government is self-evidently achieving what it had set out to do. Sunak wanting others to see his leadership as he believes it deserves is debilitating, but not uncommon.

One of the great exceptions is James Callaghan, “Sunny Jim”, who, in the 1979 election campaign – fought in the shadow of the winter of discontent – hoped the polls might turn around but admitted ruefully to Bernard Donoughue, his policy adviser, “there may have been one of those sea changes in public opinion. If people have really decided they want a change in government there is nothing you can do.”

But such phlegmatism is rare, partly due to the way the job distances the PM from the electorate. Lord Tebbit, the great Thatcherite, recalls the door closing behind his hero as she entered No 10 for the first time, and “immediately the windows which look rather large from the outside begin to get smaller, showing those inside less of the outside world as the famous red boxes grow around the prime minister”.

Tony Blair, when interviewed during Covid, admitted how losing self-awareness is one of the greatest risks of high office. For instance, he said the Covid pandemic meant it was the first time in 30 years he stayed in the same place: “The reality is that the last time I drove a car was the day before the 1997 election. I always thought being in power was a conspiracy to make you as abnormal as possible because of the life you lead.”

Two temperamental attributes Blair possessed as prime minister were an ability to appear normal to the outside world and, in his inner world, he had a knack for compartmentalising issues. “He rarely took one crisis with him into the next meeting,” one of his aides says.

And although he wanted the best media coverage possible for his government, he did not after three election victories become consumed by the issue.

By contrast, John Major admitted that, against all his instincts and plans, he became much too sensitive about what the press wrote. He told the Leveson inquiry: “God knows why I was, but I was. It is a basic human emotion to get a bit ratty about it. My overreaction was principally a human overreaction.” Above all, he did not recognise himself in what he read.

Prime ministers also often find that once they are in office they are less powerful than they imagined, pulling levers and pushing buttons to no effect. Sir Douglas Jay, for instance, likened Clement Attlee as less to “a general ordering his troops across the landscape”, and “more to a cornered animal or a climber on a rock face unable to go up or down”.

What is worse is that a single defining event transforms and solidifies a public mood, leaving the occupant in No 10 doomed and ever more frustrated as they lurch from one strategy to another to re-engage a public that has seemingly closed its mind to reappraisal.

Major, in his second term, never recovered from the ejection from the exchange rate mechanism in September 1992, and in retrospect should have acted on the resignation letter he drafted. He would not disagree with Tebbit’s description about the irreversible damage of the ERM episode: “For some 30 years prior to Black Wednesday, Gallup’s monthly tracking polls had asked respondents which party they saw as the more competent to manage the economy. Only once in all those years was the answer Labour. In the 12 years since Black Wednesday, only once has the answer been the Conservatives.”

But it left Major, like Sunak, more and more enraged at the “bastards” in his cabinet that he thought were dragging him down. One of his aides recalls: “At the time you think there are tricks to pull off, or if only someone in the party would behave, and it is only afterwards, on reflection, you realise it was all pointless. But that is in retrospect. At the time, it was human instinct to think it is salvageable or to blame someone else.”

No one was better at blaming someone else, at least for her demise, than Lady Thatcher. The diarist and MP Alan Clark recalls seeing her on the equivalent of Elba soon after her ejection from office. “Her sense of betrayal is absolute; overrides everything. [Norman] Lamont had been scheming, [Chris] Patten plotted the whole thing. Kenneth Clarke had led the rout from the cabinet room. [Malcolm] Rifkind was a weasel. Even John Major is by no means cloud free.

“I remembered a remark Tebbit once addressed to her in private: ‘Prime Minister it is you who chooses the cabinet.’”

Theresa May had her own problems with her cabinet, especially with the undisciplined Boris Johnson, and the hard Brexit supporting press, but at least in the final two years with Gavin Barwell as chief of staff, Downing Street dealt with them with equanimity. She also had the self-wisdom to recognise when her time was up.

The only true argument she had with Barwell was when she blamed herself for welling up in her resignation speech.

But if there is one recent prime minister with whom Sunak most resembles it is Gordon Brown. Both are decent, fiercely intelligent, policy wonk-ish and work all the hours God provides, plus overtime.

Of course Brown visibly struggled with the demands of office. Friends say he was harder on himself than anyone, and suffered from congenital disorganisation. Wardrobes in hotels were moved to cover marks on the wall caused by projectiles of office equipment hurled by the frustrated premier.

Sunak’s irritation with the world by contrast seems mild; a low, weak whine set against a brooding volcano. But Brown nearly fought himself back into government holed up in Downing Street for five days after the election seeking a coalition. For Sunak it appears there is that sea change in opinion, and there is nothing he – or any Tory – can do to reverse it.