The hopes of a political recovery for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are fading fast

Michael TaubeBritish Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unexpectedly called a snap election on May 22, to be held on July 4. The visual was the stuff of nightmares for experienced politicos and communication specialists. Sunak not only spoke to the nation at a podium outside of 10 Downing Street in the pouring rain, but a protester partially drowned him out by playing D:Ream’s song, “Things Can Only Get Better.”

It’s highly unlikely that things will get much better for the Prime Minister and his unpopular Tory government on the campaign trail.

Most political commentators were caught off-guard by Sunak’s announcement. This wasn’t because they didn’t know a general election was forthcoming. The previous one had been held in December 2019, meaning the latest possible date was Jan. 28, 2025. Rather, it was the risk of calling it during the summer when the last thing on a person’s mind is to go out and vote.

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It will also be the first British election held in July since 1945. That’s when Tory Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was embarrassingly tossed out by voters after his inspirational leadership during the Second World War. It left a bad taste in the mouths of conservative-leaning Brits, and should be a month that Tory leaders avoid as a matter of caution.

Then again, Sunak and the Tories have been behind Keir Starmer and the Labour Party by roughly 15 to 20 points for the better part of two years. There wasn’t much point in delaying the inevitable.

Yes, things can change on the campaign hustings. Tory Prime Minister John Major appeared to be headed toward certain defeat (or hung Parliament) in the 1992 general election. He ended up winning an unforeseen majority. Sunak would need a similar political miracle to stay in power. The likelihood of this doesn’t even seem remotely possible.

A telltale sign of Sunak’s fate was the May 2 local elections.

The Tories finished third behind Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The party dropped from 989 councillors to 515. It only maintained control of six of its previous 16 councils. That’s even worse when you consider there are 107 councils in the United Kingdom.

Long story short, this was the party’s worst defeat at the local level since 1996. While running in local elections is obviously different from general elections, the negative perceptions of the Tory brand remain the same.

In fairness, the Tory collapse doesn’t wholly rest on Sunak’s shoulders.

When Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a huge majority in December 2019, it seemed like an important moment in British political history. It was the party’s biggest margin of victory since the days of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. This electoral triumph was aided by Johnson’s ability to unite Conservatives under one big political tent and use non-ideological, populist policies to build strength in non-traditional Tory areas.

Johnson faced economic controversies related to relief spending during the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit’s viability and a looming fuel supply crisis. But these controversies paled in comparison to “Partygate,” in which Johnson defied his own COVID-19 health restrictions for large indoor social gatherings. Thirty people celebrated his birthday during the first lockdown in 2020 when no one else in the country could celebrate theirs. He became the first British Prime Minister to receive a fine (£50) for breaking the law.

Johnson eventually announced his resignation on July 7, 2022, but remained in power until his successor was chosen. That turned out to be ex-Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who beat Sunak (then former Chancellor of the Exchequer) by 57 to 43 percent on Sept. 6, 2022.

Truss’s tenure was a disaster from the start. She announced an Energy Price Guarantee to create a two-year £2,500 household cap at an estimated cost of £100 billion. It was widely panned, much like her Sept. 23, 2022 mini-budget. Her proposed cuts to the base income tax rate and stamp duty, eliminating increases on corporate taxes and abolishing the 45 percent top income tax rate were ridiculed by most Britons.

Truss and her ministers tried to mitigate the damage, but it was far too late. She resigned as Prime Minister after only 45 days, the shortest tenure in British history.

Sunak became the new Prime Minister on Oct. 24, 2022. He’s been walking on eggshells for most of his leadership tenure. Political moderates and social conservatives are frustrated and disappointed with his performance. He’s viewed as less of an economic conservative than Truss and Johnson, in spite of his insistence on being a Thatcherite on fiscal conservatism. Perceived strengths about his leadership in the early days have gradually morphed into an overall sense of incompetence.

His worst attribute as Prime Minister? As former YouGov president Peter Kellner wrote in Prospect on May 20, “What is dragging Sunak down most is that even more voters say he is weak. In particular, this is the damning verdict of the voters that he badly needs to win back: those who backed Boris Johnson in 2019 but are now unhappy with the government.”

Britain is clearly tired of 14 years of Tory rule. Starmer and Labour seem to have a lock on this election. Sunak’s hopes of a political recovery are fading fast. At the snap of one’s fingers, in fact.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.

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