Can Sunak’s popularity survive a winter of discontent?

In just eight months as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak has become a household name and something of a shining star in the government’s less than shiny coronavirus response. A recent Ipsos MORI poll revealed that Sunak is now the UK’s most popular politician, with three in five agreeing that he has handled the coronavirus crisis well. He is also the favourite to succeed Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader.

And it is no surprise that Sunak has proved so popular with the British public: with positive ratings from both sides of the political spectrum, Sunak brings an air of competence, is eloquent with his words and, most importantly, is calm and collected. So far, he has fulfilled the public’s desire to see strong government action to support those most affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Chancellor for just five weeks when the virus hit the UK, Sunak announced a historic level of public spending, perhaps the most significant feature of this being the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which saw the government pay 80% of workers’ wages to prevent mass redundancies and unemployment.

Sunak’s popularity continued to grow as the government launched the Eat Out to Help Out scheme in August. Whilst in retrospect the British Chambers of Commerce has noted only a “fairly marginal” impact on the hospitality sector, Sunak nevertheless was careful to take personal acclaim for the scheme, which saw a (temporary) drop in inflation and over 100 million discounted meals claimed, worth £522 million.

The speed, clarity and consistency of Sunak’s response throughout the coronavirus crisis has been a significant contrast with the bumbling and at times haphazard ways of Johnson. Faced with the prospect of a pandemic hitting UK shores, Johnson’s leadership was, in reality, a far cry from the Churchillian words he attempted during televised addresses. Johnson missed five consecutive coronavirus Cobra meetings, and later claimed the UK was “very, very well-prepared” despite dire PPE shortages.

At the Conservative Party’s virtual conference on Tuesday, Johnson was forced to address the concerns of Tory MPs over his expansive state interventions in the UK economy, stating that he looked forward to when the state could step back and “let the private sector get on with it”. Backbench rebellions have also defined Johnson’s last few weeks in the Commons, with Tory ministers revolting over the government’s housing plans, coronavirus response, and the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

With the furlough scheme coming to an end, and Johnson seemingly facing increasing levels of criticism from both the public and his party, will Sunak maintain his popularity? Better yet, is he likely to replace Johnson before the next general election?

An important fact to note is this: it is easy for Sunak to be as popular as he is when he is overseeing the highest level of public expenditure in recent history. But, whilst Sunak may appear young and modern, his plans for the economy are unlikely to stray far from traditional Conservative economic policy.

He has suggested that the current level of public expenditure is unsustainable, and that we simply cannot “borrow our way out of any hole”. There are already plans in place to cut Universal Credit and withdraw support for jobs not deemed to be ‘viable’, with Sunak suggesting many of those employed in the Arts should retrain. As the UK faces a winter of discontent, the public may revolt over higher unemployment and lower living standards due to planned cuts to welfare, risking not only Sunak’s popularity, but the popularity of the government as a whole.

If Sunak is to succeed Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party before the next election, he must find a way to maintain public – and party – support for what will undoubtedly be increasingly harsh economic policies.

Image: Number 10 via Flickr