Voices: Tory downfall: The 9 reasons it has all gone wrong for Rishi Sunak

As Rishi Sunak surveys a historically catastrophic result for the Conservatives and examines the ashes of his political career, the question he and many will be asking is: “Where did it all go wrong?”

Handed a party in chaos after the rules of both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, he had the unenviable job of turning a doomed tanker around.

But the truth is that the disaster that unfurled in the early hours of Friday morning started a long time ago:

Selection to run in Richmond in 2015

There is nothing wrong in a potential future leader being given a safe seat.

However, Mr Sunak’s party did him no favours by not letting him first test out his political skills in an unwinnable seat and then preventing any real competition when he did stand in Richmond. Both factors laid the groundwork for a politician who has been constantly and justifiably criticised for lacking political skills and instincts.

The comparison often made is Penny Mordaunt who had to take two elections to win her Portsmouth North seat off Labour and has been a noticeably better political operator in the government.

The lack of political nouse has seen the prime minister caught our time and again on quite simple decisions and exposed a lack of tactics in taking on Labour.


Arguably supporting Brexit in 2016 was a mistake in the first place. It certainly held up his career in becoming a minister. He was expected to be fasttracked into government but had to wait almost three years until 2018 to become a junior minister. His rise after that when Boris Johnson came to power was meteoric.

But to support Leave in a way which then allowed a Remain campaigner Liz Truss to later on claim to be more of a Brexiteer than him is a special achievement. Ms Truss managed to get the support of the hardcore Brexiteer European Research Group of Tory MPs which helped her win the leadership contest against him.

His premiership was also dogged by angry Brexiteers claiming he was betraying Brexit either by sorting out the Northern Ireland mess with the Windsor Framework or getting British scientists back into the EU’s Horizon program.

Sunak and his wife voting (Owen Humphreys/PA Wire)
Sunak and his wife voting (Owen Humphreys/PA Wire)

Handing out cash and Partygate

The high point in Sunak’s popularity was when he was handing out wads of cash as Chancellor in the furlough scheme during the covid lockdown. Unfortunately, it meant that as prime minister his government have been dealing with the economic consequences of that in inflation, debt and the cost of living.

He also seemed not to realise that gratitude is a shortlived comodity in politics when he continued to refer to his Covid support, including eat out to help out, during the crisis and beyond.

The short public’s short memory may have partly been due to him being fined for Partygate. While Boris Johnson took most of the flak for breaching the rules, Sunak was also famously fined for rule breaking and it has overshadowed his premiership.

Out of touch

Mr Sunak’s personal gaffes seemed to entrench the idea of an out of touch rich man with little connection to ordinary people.

There was the time he borrowed a Sainsbury’s worker’s car to look like a man of the people for a political stunt and struggled to pay for his petrol using a contectless card. But there was also the US green card he had held on to which suggested he planned to head back to California as soon as he could. On one memorable occasion he asked a homeless man at a kitchen: “Are you in business?”

Perhaps the worst though was the video which emerged during the leadership contest of him telling some well-to-do Tories how he was taking money from deprived areas to help them out.

A £1,000 bet made with Piers Morgan over Rwanda flights made him look uncaring and callous. This was emphasised with the terrible trans joke during PMQS in front of Esther Ghey, the mother of a murdered trans teenager Brianna. Starmer never let him forget that moment.

Sunak borrowed someone’s car for a political stunt (HM Treasury)
Sunak borrowed someone’s car for a political stunt (HM Treasury)

Assassinations of Boris and Truss

Mr Sunak was only the second person to resign from Johnson’s cabinet after the Chris Pincher scandal broke (the first was Sajid Javid). But somehow it got framed as part of a coup to install him as prime minister.

Losing the leadership bid to Liz Truss was bad enough but then her mini budget was used by Labour as the reason the economy crashed. The coup to remove her and finally install him brought all the conspiracy theories back. There was never any chance that the warring Tory party could unite under his leadership.

Five priorities

In January 2023 Sunak made his offer to the British people with five priorities - bring down inflation, grow the economy, bring down debt, bring down NHS waiting lists and “stop the boats” (not reduce the boats).

At the time his lack of ambition was criticised for five pledges which, apart from the boats, would look easy to deliver on. But by the time he called the general election, only inflation was down to target.

His pursuit of a Rwanda flights policy literally never got off the ground. In the end it caused further discontent in his party, damaged the Tories in the polls and left a wide open space for Nigel Farage and Reform to destroy them in the election.

Levido appointed Labour people to his PR company (Getty Images)
Levido appointed Labour people to his PR company (Getty Images)

Sunak’s people

Too often Sunak appointed people who were his friends like political secretary James Forsyth (previously his best man and a former journalist) and chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith (a protege of Dominic Cummings) and not people who would do the job properly.

He has never really had anybody effective running his campaign machine. Campaign coordinator Isaac Levido had so little confidence in the prime minister winning that he started recruiting Labour people to his PR firm.

Sunak made Nadhim Zahawi chairman - who then had to resign over an HMRC investigation. Then Greg Hands who he moved after failing in last year’s local elections. Then Ric Holden as chairman did not even have a seat to fight and caused a stinker of a row when he forced himself on Billericay and Basildon for the election. Holden has not been seen much since and scraped into his seat by 20 votes.

It was not just his inner circle of advisers but also an an inability to stamp his authority on the cabinet. He made Suella Braverman home secretary because she helped him stop a Boris Johnson comeback but when she went rogue on a number of issues including getting rid of tents for the homeless or using extreme language about pro-Palestinian marchers, he seemed paralysed and unable to sack her.

When she was finally sacked he shocked many by bringing back David Cameron as foreign secretary, despite the former prime minister being involved in the Greensill financial scandal. It all showed a serious lack of judgement.

MPs quitting

There is nothing like Tory MPs deserting to underline that the party was sinking. Of 122 MPs who decided to quit at this election 75 were Conservatives as polling day grew near. This included everyone from young rising stars like Dehenna Davison to veteran grandees like Theresa May.

It appeared that the rush to the exit door started under his premiership. While there was a hope he could turn the party fortunes around once it became clear that he would not be able to do that then his own MPs gave up.

Nothing summed this up more than Michael Gove’s shock last minute decision to quit without telling him while he was on the election campaign trail in the Titanic Museum of all places.

Theresa May has quit as an MP (PA Wire)
Theresa May has quit as an MP (PA Wire)

Worst election campaign in history

Nothing has gone right in this election campaign right from the moment he called it in the soaking rain on his own in Downing street to the sound of D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better” blaring from outside.

It was bad enough that the Tories were not ready to fight an election, ran out of money on day 2 and did not have many candidates in place.

They had no answer to Nigel Farage standing and Reform’s surge up the polls.

Among the litany of failures: The Titanic museum (sinking ship anyone?), the row over people from his inner circle being parachuted into winnable seats; asking Welsh voters if they were looking forward to Euro 24 when their team didn’t qualify; Tory activists dressed up as fake workers at an event; the woman with the eye roll in camera shot at another event; saying he was hard up as a child because his parents did not have Sky TV.

But the two killers were leaving D-Day early and the gambling scandal on the election date again involving his inner circle. It meant that he was never able to close the massive gap held by Labour.

The coup de gras though was that the main attack line of £2,000 extra tax on households was disowned by the Treasury.

In truth, there was never much hope for Sunak and now it looks like it will be as bad as it can get.