Voices: No one thinks Rishi Sunak is a criminal, but they might start to think he is incompetent

Rishi Sunak makes an unlikely law-breaker. It seemed unfair that he should have been served with a fixed penalty notice for turning up early for a meeting and being “ambushed with a cake” in the immortal phrase of Conor Burns.

It was especially unfair as there wasn’t even a cake. It was left in a tupperware box and there were only packet sandwiches in the photographs of the event published by Sue Gray, the civil service inquisitor.

Yet it seems fair that Boris Johnson should have been fined, because bulldozing through pettifogging rules is part of the character he plays on the public stage. If he shouldn’t have been fined for the birthday sandwiches, most people think he was guilty by association with all the other things that went on in Downing Street during lockdowns.

And although Sunak has now broken the law again, accepting a fixed penalty for failing to wear a seatbelt, he doesn’t come across – as Johnson did – as believing that there is one rule for us and a different rule for them.

All the same, Thursday was a bad day for him. It was meant to be a positive news day, as Sunak and other media-friendly cabinet ministers fanned out across the midlands and north of England in what some wisely anonymous adviser called a “starburst”, to announce the award of levelling-up funds to places that complain London does not care about them. Instead, he was criticised for flying everywhere, got the names of northern towns mixed up and filmed himself in the back of a car not wearing a seatbelt.

If that had been a day of a general election campaign, the press would have been unforgiving: “Sunak’s day of disaster.” As it was, the seatbelt incident seems unlikely to generate many sales for “crime minister” T-shirts in the way that Johnson did. Social media was quickly awash with videos of Johnson and Tony Blair doing the same thing. There is even footage of Keir Starmer, the barrister, in the back of a moving taxi with no seatbelt, boasting about his triumph in a human rights case.

Starmer, who made so much of his “integrity” in promising to resign if fined by the Durham police for a breach of coronavirus law, won’t be mentioning seatbelts in his next Prime Minister’s Questions. He will leave that kind of thing to his shadow ministers. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, made a joke of it in her speech to the Fabian Society this morning: “The prime minister made clear the depth of his own commitment to net zero this week, when he chose to fly by RAF jet from Teesside to Blackpool,” she said. “I understand the air stewards had to do the seatbelt demonstration a few times before it really sank in.”

Sunak might prefer to be mocked than to be called a criminal, but what he called a “brief error of judgement” is still damaging to him. He was supposed to be different from and better than Johnson not just on integrity but on competence.

So far – and he has been prime minister for only 88 days, remember – Sunak’s record on competence has been mixed. He and Jeremy Hunt settled the markets with the autumn statement, but most of his work on what he calls “the people’s priorities” has consisted of superficially plausible plans rather than actual delivery. He is highly competent at listing the five promises that he made in his New Year speech, able to insert them into the answer to almost any question in a TV interview – an impressive party trick that reminds me of when David Cameron and Ed Miliband competed to remember and recite whole speeches.

But on other fronts, faced with new challenges and the rough and tumble of stuff happening, Sunak has fumbled. The most important misjudgement, I think, has been in his handling of strikes. He started off by insisting that they were nothing to do with the government, that ministers should not get involved, and that there was definitely no new money available. The first two crumbled in the face of public opinion, which requires ministers to “get round the table” even if that is simply, as in health secretary Steve Barclay’s case, to plead with the unions to help him make the case to the Treasury for more money.

The money will be found, for the nurses at least, who have the highest level of public support, and the most urgent need to have their mouths stuffed with gold to stop them leaving an NHS that is in crisis. In which case it would have been better to have engaged in negotiation from the start and to have bought off the nurses strikes before they happened.

Instead, Sunak is likely to come up with the money after more damage is done – to the NHS, to nurses’ morale and to Conservative poll ratings – in a way that will look as if he has given in to union pressure.

The worst damage will be to Sunak’s reputation for competence. The seatbelt and the occasional misspeaking are minor things. It was a bad idea, much as I enjoyed it, for him to say to his Conservative audience in Morecambe “you’re not idiots” because they know why he cannot cut taxes yet, because he was in effect calling the majority of Tory members and a significant minority of Tory MPs idiots.

But if the minor things become symbols of a failure to get a grip of more important problems, they will eat away at Sunak’s government. The trouble with government is that decisions have to be made all the time. As Starmer and Reeves are discovering, sometimes it is easier to look competent in opposition.