Sunak bets the House on a presidential-style campaign

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After the troubled start to his election campaign, Rishi Sunak must have viewed his Friday itinerary with trepidation. The Prime Minister’s visit to Belfast’s Titanic Quarter raised inevitable questions about whether he was in command of a sinking ship.

Some 48 hours after announcing the July 4 general election under a downpour in Downing Street (with the image of a drenched prime minister plastered across newspaper front pages), Sunak is struggling to gain momentum at the start of a six-year race. weeks.

Although Sunak’s advisers insist the Conservative campaign will be a “team game”, it has so far been built around the prime minister. Sunak has toured the UK’s four countries on a publicity blitz, making occasional missteps along the way.

Sunak admitted his flagship asylum program in Rwanda would not be operational before election day and his promised legislation for a “smoke-free generation” failed on Thursday. Meanwhile, Conservative MPs are rushing to resign before voters can deliver their verdict.

The Prime Minister has challenged his Labor opponent, Sir Keir Starmer, to six television debates. Sunak claims Starmer lacks “courage” but the Labor leader plays it safe and insists two face-to-face debates will be enough. Although on Friday afternoon Sky said the Labor leader had agreed to take part in an electoral leaders event in Grimsby.

The problem with a Conservative presidential campaign, at least according to the polls, is that Sunak’s personal popularity ratings have fallen so much in recent months that he is now even less liked than his unpopular party.

According to a YouGov poll this month, Sunak’s net favorability score is a dismal -51, compared to -49 for the Conservatives as a whole. Until earlier this year, the prime minister seemed to be holding his party back.

Starmer is also less popular than his party, but on a smaller scale: his net favorability score is -17, compared to Labour’s -5.

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Given the terrible polls (the Conservatives typically trail Labor by more than 20 per cent), many in Westminster are still trying to figure out why Sunak decided to go to a summer vote rather than wait until the autumn.

A long-serving Conservative adviser said Sunak chose to leave now because this was the best it was going to be. “The only thing I see ahead is risk,” the advisor said.

The prime minister made the decision Wednesday after weeks of talks with his internal team, according to people close to the discussions. Oliver Dowden, deputy prime minister, was one of the few ministers who was aware at an early stage.

His chief of staff, Liam Booth-Smith, advocated going early, while campaign manager Isaac Levido wanted to wait until the fall to allow voters to enjoy the fruits of a nascent economic recovery.

Sunak scrutinized the economic data, according to Conservative officials, and concluded that July was the time of greatest economic advantage and least political risk.

On Wednesday, inflation fell to 2.3 percent, close to the Bank of England’s target level, but economists expect it to rise in the coming months. Interest rate cuts, according to one conservative adviser, were “further and further away.”

Crucially, Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, concluded there would be no money for tax cuts: expectations of higher market interest rates were driving up Britain’s debt servicing costs, while Sunak was turning on the spending taps.

“At the time Rishi said last month that we were going to increase defense spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP (by 2030), that meant there would be no Autumn Statement,” a Treasury insider said.

One cabinet minister agreed that there was no point in waiting: “It was always a game of chance to think that people’s feelings would suddenly change between July and September.”

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Neville Hill, an economist at consultancy Hybrid Economics, said “the prospect of them having an autumn of excellent economic news has diminished.”

Meanwhile, the political risks of waiting grew: among the identifiable problems were increased Conservative infighting, defections and resignations, plus a summer of migrant crossings in small boats.

Many cabinet ministers did not find out about the July election until Wednesday through speculation on social media. When Sunak announced the July 4 date to his cabinet, he had already seen King Charles call for the dissolution of parliament.

With the campaign emerging in the party on such short notice, Conservative officials have already raised concerns about the structure of the campaign and party donations.

One official said many megadonors were hesitant to write large checks, angered by the party’s decision to eliminate non-dom status.

Meanwhile, some Tory figures have complained about the party’s lack of “good donor care” under Sunak’s leadership, complaining that median contributors have been neglected.

“There’s a whole group of people who used to receive WhatsApps, emails and go out for drinks regularly, and that hasn’t happened lately,” said one. “Rishi doesn’t even ask people for money, he just waits for them to give him.”

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The party’s dismal popularity ratings in the polls also mean it has so far struggled to attract key conservative figures in the public relations world to help with communications, which has taken a toll on morale.

High-profile PR figures such as former Vote Leave communications director Paul Stephenson and former Number 10 communications director Lee Cain have yet to materialize at CCHQ, a source said.

A Conservative campaign official insisted fundraising had gone “enormously well” during Sunak’s tenure as leader. They added that figures like Stephenson ran businesses that they could not abandon in the short term to sign up for a political campaign.

Ladbrokes put the odds of Sunak winning a Conservative majority at 25 to 1 – extremely low odds in a two-horse race – but some Tory officials say the Prime Minister genuinely believes he can still win.

“He’s not stupid, he can see it’s an uphill fight,” said one Conservative official at the center of the election campaign. “But if you don’t think you can win, you might as well go home.”

Video: Sketchy Politics: Sunak’s sinking feeling

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