Voices: Not waving but drowning – Rishi Sunak’s Q&A was a masterclass in cringe

Rishi Sunak would probably rather everyone forgot that actually he lost a leadership race to a prime minister who would go on to last just short of seven weeks in the job, two of which were spent in a period of national mourning. So it is especially unfortunate that he can’t really go anywhere in public without simultaneously providing a reminder of precisely why that happened.

Because when it comes to the job of standing up in front of a room full of people and trying to look normal, Rishi Sunak has roughly the same amount of easygoing charm as Theresa May.

On Monday morning, he summoned the Westminster press pack four hours north by train to a hospital in Darlington for what he had himself described as a “Q and A session”. It was only on Friday that Jeremy Hunt revealed his four Es. If anyone’s keeping count, Rishi Sunak managed approximately three Qs (at least from journalists) and somewhere in the region of absolutely zero As.

To say it was excruciating to watch would not be quite accurate. The adjective “excruciating” derives from the pain and suffering of crucifixion. But the prime minister wasn’t dying on a cross he was dying on his arse.

It was as if he was looking out upon the room full of angry doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers and seeing only nine-year-old children. He inclined his neck, he fake laughed, he looked at any moment like he might step out into the audience and start ruffling their hair like a children’s party entertainer.

He also did that thing that so many politicians do when they find themselves speaking to people who they’ve already pigeonholed in their mind as “normal folk”, and began dropping the Ts at the end of his words, presumably to try and fit in. It was, at times, like listening to Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, who was at least trying to do an impression of a cockney chimney sweep, not a prime minister addressing hospital workers in County Durham.

The prime minister had his “five pledges”, the ones he revealed a couple of weeks ago, printed on a backdrop behind him. But only the fifth one made it in to shot on the TV footage, so he stood there with his sleeves rolled up, doing his very best impression of a man trying to sound caring and kind and compassionate and on the side of the lovely hospital workers, but framed only by the three-word slogan “Stop The Boats”. If you happened to be flicking through the news channels and were lucky enough not to know who Rishi Sunak actually was, your first reaction would be to wonder quite what this nice, polite young man was doing at a National Front rally in an NHS hospital.

When it got to the media’s turn it got far worse. The prime minister became ever more tetchy as members of His Majesty’s press corps insisted on asking him about a matter that as far as he is concerned is now dealt with, namely the sacking of Nadhim Zahawi over what is now confirmed as seven different breaches of the ministerial code.

Why wouldn’t they ask about the thing that he did want to talk about, the thing he was there to announce – which was an extremely small number of new ambulances and absolutely no guarantee that things will get much better before the end of the year?

Why was it all Zahawi this, Zahawi that? He’d sacked him, wasn’t that enough? The trouble is, no. It’s not. Because even though Zahawi is now gone, there’s also the investigation into Dominic Raab, there’s the rolling bin fire of Boris Johnson’s personal finances which are so out of control they are now actively undermining the editorial independence of the BBC. Then there’s Suella Braverman, who he reappointed as home secretary about half an hour after she’d been made to resign.

There is, in short, a never-ending pipeline of further humiliations to come, for a man who’s already very obviously out of his depth and who really does want you to believe that he’s just waving and smiling and listening and caring and not very obviously drowning.