Securing the ‘narrow path to victory’: Will Sunak’s gamble pay off?

Peter Cardwell, Senior Counsel

Two major political events have gone almost completely under the radar in recent days. With the box office reshuffle bringing Call Me Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton back to the political fray after a six-year absence (with associated questions about that he has been up to in the meantime) to say nothing of the Suella Braverman versus Rishi Sunak controversy, you would be forgiven for missing a few things.  Most media certainly have. 

The reduction in inflation to 4.6% meets one of Rishi Sunak’s five pledges to halve inflation, although there are those who point to wider economic forces beyond the Prime Minister’s control which have contributed to this.  Last Wednesday I was asked on television whether Rishi Sunak would, as a result, have a good day politically.  “Well the Rwanda verdict is coming in three hours’ time, so he may have a good morning at least,” I replied. 

On inflation, Number 10 is breathing a sigh of relief, but there is still time until another verdict comes in, that of Sunak’s four other key pledges.  For a Prime Minister who has had a run of bad luck, there would be great irony if inflation rose before the 4th of January, when Sunak will be judged on the four other pledges. 

Today’s announcement – somewhat lost under the claim and counter-claim of Sir Patrick Vallance’s evidence to the Covid Inquiry and Cameron’s introduction to the Lords – that tax cuts are coming, sets the context for an Autumn Statement.  Sunak and his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, will try, yet again, to wrest the narrative that the government is in terminal decline and there is, quite simply, a glide path to a Labour victory.  Certainly, the 23-point lead Labour has in the most recent YouGov poll – and the fact the Conservatives haven’t had a consistent lead in a major poll for a year – brings that task into sharp relief.

‘Stop the boats’ sounds simple but is proving the trickiest of the five pledges.  Whilst Sunak will point to a third reduction in the number of boats coming across the Channel, that policy is now mired in the Rwanda legal maelstrom, with the Supreme Court’s verdict last week unleashed many political problems.  Whilst electorally important, some even in the Conservative Party wonder about the wisdom of spending so much political capital on a deeply problematic and strung out policy.  The focus on 500 people who may or may not go to Rwanda also distracts from the 175,000 caught in the asylum system in this country already.

With Suella Braverman’s shadow leadership campaign casting off the shackles of the Home Office via her sacking, she is free to criticise Sunak without the responsibility and accountability that any government minister faces.  Her excoriating letter last week set out her stall, and yet more criticism will follow.

With attacks from the left from Labour, the right from Braverman, Rishi Sunak has not his sorrows to seek.  His gamble is that the economy will turn round, that voters will be grateful to the Conservative Party for that and that they will vote accordingly.  Talk of a ‘narrow path to victory’ for the Conservatives is more muted these days, and Labour, especially at their party conference in Liverpool last month, are more buoyant.  Even if Wednesday’s Autumn Statement is a barn-stormer, with many fiscal rabbits to confound and baffle his critics, Rishi Sunak still faces a long and difficult winter.

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