Sunak Talks Tough But Allies Fear UK Tories Are Losing Control

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak says he’s hungry for victory in the next UK general election. But he’s not whetting the appetite of his restless Conservatives.

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Tory Members of Parliament hoped the much-hyped “reset” would re-energize a party adrift and take the fight to the Labour opposition, which is leading by around 20 points in the polls.

Instead, the limited changes to Sunak’s cabinet underwhelmed them as the prime minister himself became mired in a crisis over dangerous school buildings. Opponents seized on the image of crumbling ceilings as a metaphor for 13 years of Tory rule.

The escape of a dangerous prisoner only added to his woes, underlining the impact of spending cuts in prisons.

As Sunak jetted 4,000 miles to the G-20 summit in India, Tory MPs, government advisers and senior officials said they were concerned that Sunak’s uneven performance meant the party risked an electoral wipe-out. They spoke on condition of anonymity to share their private concerns.

A cabinet minister said Sunak is in danger of looking like he’s lost control. Another minister urged him to get a grip of his operation. Other Tory MPs lamented a lack of gripping policies and described panic among newer lawmakers elected in 2019 to represent traditionally Labour seats that may fall back to the opposition.

Another bemoaned how the Tories are supposed to be the party of competent governance but are now linked to failing train services, crumbling schools and the prison escape. Meanwhile, aides said leaks are increasing and discipline is breaking down.

Sunak isn’t helped by the UK’s stuttering economic performance.

Growth is anemic, inflation stands at more than three times the Bank of England’s 2% target, and rising interest rates have cut Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt’s fiscal headroom, leaving little scope for him to offer any budgetary bribes to voters at his planned fiscal statement on Nov. 22.

With Hunt and Sunak downplaying the chances of tax cuts in the fall, another MP remarked that a policy of seeking to make steady progress doesn’t work well if the ship is heading toward an iceberg.

The grim mood among Tories contrasts with the prime minister’s own bullishness. Speaking to reporters on the plane to Delhi, he told reporters he was “hungry to win.”

“I can tell you, certainly in Downing Street, we are fired up,” he said. “I will show the British people what I am capable of in the time I have now before the election. I will be saying to them ‘give me a full term and then I’ll show what I can deliver for you.’”

But he conceded the timing of the concrete row was “frustrating” as it had knocked his attempt to regain the political narrative off course.

Last week, some 104 schools containing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) — which poses a risk of collapse — were told to close buildings. The story dominated the news agenda for a week, with hospitals, courts and even the Houses of Parliament being audited for the material.

Labour released a series of social media attack adverts mocking the Tories, with one Conservative adviser saying they had a demoralizing effect. Labour Leader Keir Starmer also got a boost from his own, far more extensive and well-received reshuffle on Monday as he installed new faces in the shadow cabinet that he hopes in little more than a year will form the government. Sunak must call an election for January 2025 at the latest.

The schools row also exposed internal Tory divisions, with some calling for Education Secretary Gillian Keegan to be demoted, multiple advisers said. A supporter of Keegan said she was the victim of dirty tricks, and a Downing Street official denied they wanted to fire her.

Overturning Labour’s lead at the end of Liz Truss’s market-routing premiership was always a tall order for Sunak. That’s been made harder by his struggles to meet five core pledges he’s told voters to judge him by, including halving inflation, cutting health service waiting lists and stopping migrants entering the country in small boats.

There are still opportunities for Sunak to make progress. His team insisted they did not recognize this week as a reset, instead pointing to the Conservative Party conference in October, where the premier will take more of a central role than usual, as aides believe he is personally more popular with the public than his party.

In early November, the party will lay out its legislative agenda, and toward the end of that month, Hunt will deliver an autumn statement in which he hopes to boast the government will meet promises to grow the economy and halve inflation.

While special elections in two seats the Tories won in 2019 pose another potential flash-point in October, two Conservatives said they expect to win the Mid-Bedfordshire seat vacated by Sunak critic Nadine Dorries because the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties would take votes off each other. A loss would signal a landslide Labour victory was likely in a general election, and fear would spread across the party, they said.

For some the fear is already there. One MP said the last week showed the Tories had lost the benefit of the doubt with the media and voters and it would be almost impossible to win it back by the election. Another — who isn’t standing in the next election — said they were so depressed with their own party that they were considering voting Labour.

--With assistance from Ellen Milligan.

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