Has Rishi Sunak wrecked his hopes of becoming prime minister?

Rishi Sunak is facing a damaging backlash after delivering a mini budget that critics claim fails to shield Britain’s most vulnerable families from the looming cost-of-living crisis. 

Sunak has been one of the most popular politicians in the country since becoming chancellor, but was forced on the offensive as he defended his Spring Statement 2022 in a round of “spiky” media interviews, said The Guardian. 

Just weeks after Sunak was tipped as a top contender to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister, political pundits are questioning whether his political star is now on the wane.

‘Maelstrom of criticism’

With UK finances in a “tricky state”, few in the government expected the Spring Statement to “spell a good news day”, said Katy Balls in the i news site. Yet both Downing Street and the Treasury were “caught off guard by the maelstrom of criticism that followed”. 

Although some Conservative MPs praised Sunak’s plans as a “creative and conservative” set of measures, “such praise was missing in the media”, Balls continued. Left-leaning papers “slated” him for doing too little to help the vulnerable, while those on the right “lambasted the promise of an income tax cut by 2024 as too little, too late”.

Voters appear to be equally unimpressed. Sunak ended 2021 as the most popular politician in the country.

But a YouGov poll of more than 1,750 Britons following last week’s mini budget found that 51% had a negative view of the chancellor, versus 36% who saw him in a positive light – giving Sunak a net favourability rating of -15, his lowest to date. 

There are some “big lessons” for Sunak to learn, said Andrew Marr in The New Statesman. “First, if you are going to pull a rabbit from a hat, make sure it’s a real, live and twitching rabbit, and not the airy promise of a possible bunny in two years’ time.”

And while the first part of his Spring Statement speech to the Commons last Wednesday may have been “excellent”, with “a geopolitical sweep that made him look and sound like a prime minister rising to the scale of world events”, it “quickly went downhill”. 

According to Marr, Sunak missed a “big opportunity” to give the British people “a clear story about the economic and military threats our democracy faces and to prepare us for some of the hardship needed during the great rebuilding which is necessary”. Instead, his “party-political games about tax cuts simply look small by comparison”.

The wheels have seemingly come off Sunak’s usually slick PR machine too. The day after his statement “bellyflopped”, Sunak was forced to admit that he had borrowed a Kia Rio from a Sainsbury’s employee to stage a photo of him filling the car with petrol.

In a further embarrassment, footage also emerged showing the “out-of-touch” chancellor struggling to pay for a can of Coca-Cola in a shop “because he kept trying to tap his contactless card on the barcode reader”, said The Mirror.  

Sunak has presented himself as a “safe pair of hands whose grasp of detail and measured manner offered a reassuring contrast to Boris Johnson”, the paper continued. But the Coke debacle suggests that “beneath the soft-speaking and cosy leisurewear”, there is a “Thatcherite Tory, whose privileged upbringing, private education and vast family wealth has apparently left him struggling to understand the real world”.

Downing Street panic

Sunak’s Spring Statement “failed to allay panic” in Downing Street about the effects of inflation, “particularly with the May local elections looming”, said The Sunday Times. 

According to the paper, private strategic polling has shown that the cost-of-living crisis is now the public’s “primary concern”. And that has reportedly left the chancellor “weighing up” whether to introduce new measures including a further council tax rebate as part of a multibillion-pound package.

As worry mounts, key figures in Downing Street have already mooted the possibility of a cabinet reshuffle in the summer, reported The Sunday Times’ chief political commentator Tim Shipman, who suggested that Johnson may be preparing to “move his chancellor”. 

The PM has “previously threatened to do so”, Shipman continued, although “those who speak for” Johnson have said that Sunak is “going nowhere” for now. 

Yet if Sunak stays at the Treasury, he finds himself “almost friendless” in cabinet. And while the council tax rebate plan is popular, he will have to contend with a public and fellow ministers who, following the Covid pandemic bailouts, think that “most economic pain can be removed by the government”.

The “big question” hanging over Sunak’s political future is “how his standing among Conservative MPs will change”, wrote Alibhe Rea in The New Statesman. Many had “far more sympathy for his statement than his cabinet rivals, the media or the general public”. 

In the “unofficial contest” to succeed Johnson, said Rea, “Tory MPs are the crucial electorate, and they are still undecided”. 

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