Britain in numbers

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March 30, 2022

Has Rishi Sunak’s bubble burst?

By Ben Walker

What a journey. He started off with better ratings than any politician since the heydays of Tony Blair. He was talked up as a flexible operator suited to playing to the gallery. When Boris Johnson’s premature obituaries were written in December in the midst of partygate, he was cast as the obvious successor to guarantee a Conservative victory in the next election. But with the Spring Statement behind him, and an increasingly disquieted public disappointed with its meagre offerings, Rishi Sunak’s net approval rating is falling as fast as Johnson’s was a few months ago.

In 2020 the Chancellor came away from the UK's first Covid lockdown with a net approval of more than 35 percentage points. In the US numbers like that are par for the course for most presidents in their first years in office, but in Britain they're exceptional. We tend to view our current politicians with suspicion.

Sunak's rapid fall from grace reveals why he had such appeal back then, and so little now. His popularity was situational -- a sign of the times, as opposed to an intrinsic, long-lasting and well-built foundation of support. If you demonstrate ability during a crisis but fail to keep that momentum up in what is perceived as normal times then support quickly evaporates. Winston Churchill learnt that to his great disappointment in 1945. 

Sunak's popularity was starting to falter long before the Spring Statement, but it has fallen sharply since. As I've written before, Britons are paying as much attention to the cost-of-living crisis today as they were to Brexit in 2019 and Covid-19 in 2020. Sunak's failure to appropriately acknowledge the intensity of public anxiety about their finances meant his Spring Statement was a disappointment: tinkering rather than the "Dishy Rishi" delights the public came to expect from the Chancellor during the pandemic. Voters appreciated what was in the statement but the vast majority said, again and again, that it was a distraction -- it would do little to help bring down the actual cost of living.

In 2020 Sunak had a net approval of +35. In 2021 it was +25. In January this year it had drifted to +15, and only days after the Spring Statement it had collapsed to +2, with both Opinium and YouGov now putting him in the net negative. In some surveys he now polls lower than Keir Starmer.

I once wrote that Sunak would be no silver bullet for the Tory party's electoral challenges post-Johnson, and the past week somewhat vindicates that. Assessing the potential of a politician based on public opinion during a pandemic was a fool's endeavour. What's been revealed to us now is that Rishi Sunak is no messiah. He's just a very normal politician.