In the popular children’s board game “Guess Who”, each player is given one card with an image of a person on it, and the other player must guess who is on that card by asking yes or no questions. Players then flip down characters until they have worked out which one the other player is holding.
For many, the past year has been an exercise in Guess Who Rishi Sunak is.
Rushed into office as Prime Minister following the fall-out of the Liz Truss premiership last September, Sunak has focused his first year in office by steadying the ship and spending time focusing on stabilising the economy and addressing other crises such as with energy, and the cost of living. Whilst, after a tumultuous time for the Conservative Party, Government and the country, this was arguably necessary, the approach has left little opportunity for new policy.
After almost a year in office, Sunak therefore remains a largely unknown quantity to voters, with many of their preconceived opinions born from his time as Chancellor during the COVID-19 Pandemic, and through stories linked to his wealth.
But are we finally seeing who the real Rishi Sunak is?
At arguably his most important speech since becoming Prime Minister, Sunak speaking at a lectern with the words “Long term decisions for a brighter future” emboldened across it, finally set forth some new policy seeking to reframe the debate on climate change and net zero.
Gone are the days of pleasing the parliamentary party, the Prime Minister would now be taking the tough decisions. This meant that whilst the Government would remain committed to the 2050 net zero target, it would relax other measures and targets so that net zero could be delivered in a proportionate and pragmatic way, and crucially not early.
Whatever the merits of the approach announced by Sunak, it was the first real insight that the public has had into who Rishi Sunak really is. Since then, the papers have been dominated by reports about other policy areas which Sunak is reportedly keen to tackle. Education has been termed “the silver bullet”, (a West Wing reference for all politics TV aficionados), with Sunak reportedly weighing up changing the A-Level system in the UK to resemble the international baccalaureate. There have been further murmurings about changes to inheritance tax, adult social care, HS2, and the pensions triple lock, as Sunak remains committed to tackling tough policy areas.
In addition to who Sunak is, this all tells us something about the strategy that the Prime Minister and his advisers hope could secure him a general election win. We are seeing dividing lines being drawn between Sunak and Keir Starmer and the Prime Minister’s team remains hopeful that for all the success that the Labour Party has recently enjoyed in the polls, voters still remain unconvinced about a Labour Government and Keir Starmer himself.
However, the challenge for the Prime Minister and the Conservatives will be how to sell Sunakism to a public that has grown disillusioned with the Conservative brand after 13 years in power. Will the public really care that Sunak is much more socially conservative on issues such as immigration and borders, and net zero, or have they just given up listening?
We’ll begin to get a sense of this as Rishi Sunak arrives in Manchester this weekend for his first Party Conference as Leader of the Conservative Party. Conference will be the next step in setting out his stall to the public, and whilst it’s unlikely that we’ll get reams of new policy, we will begin to hear more about what Sunakism is and how the Prime Minister will take the tough decisions needed for Britain.
He’ll do this against the backdrop of a party that remains sceptical about their chances of success at the next election. For some, Sunak’s change of tack will be too little too late, but for others, it may just be the tonic they need to reinvent themselves and give the party a fighting chance at the next election.