The challenges facing Rishi Sunak ahead of the next general election

The challenges facing Rishi Sunak ahead of the next general election

When Rishi Sunak entered Downing Street on October 25 last year, the Conservatives were on average 17 points behind in opinion polls.

Fast forward 12 months and little has changed, with the Tories still a similar distance behind their Labour rivals and time running out to reverse their fortunes.

Losing to Labour in last week’s by-elections in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth, both seen as safe Tory seats after big wins in 2019, will have served as a further warning to Mr Sunak that he may not have long left in charge.

With a general election required to be held before January 2025, the Prime Minister faces a number of challenges if he is to avoid following Gordon Brown’s lead in being put into No 10 by his party, only to be ousted by the public at the first opportunity.

Conservative leadership
Liz Truss defeated Rishi Sunak in the Tory leadership race but was short-lived as prime minister (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Mr Sunak used his Tory Party conference speech in Manchester earlier this month to pitch himself as a reformer who could fix a “broken” political system.

His decision to row back on measures designed to help the UK achieve a net zero economy by 2050 and axing the northern legs of HS2 past Birmingham were cited by the Downing Street incumbent as a show of his willingness to challenge Whitehall orthodoxy and do things differently.

As an early test of that messaging, the Tamworth and Mid-Bedfordshire by-elections appear to indicate that voters are yet to buy his pitch.

And it remains to be seen whether he can convince the British electorate that he represents change when the Tories have been in power since 2010 and he himself was a prominent player under Boris Johnson, an administration which was mired in the partygate Covid lockdown-busting controversy.

Another challenge he faces is one of his own making.

It is unlikely he will be able to say he has delivered all five pledges that he made to the country in January, with his vows of cutting NHS waiting lists and stopping the boats looking shaky.

The Illegal Migration Act, a key plank of the UK Government’s migration policy, paved the way for asylum seekers arriving via unauthorised routes to be deported to Rwanda but ministers are still waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on whether the policy is lawful.

The Conservative Party leader’s pledges on halving inflation and growing the economy look more achievable, however.

The status of his pledges is likely to influence his thinking around when to call a general election, a challenge in its own right.

He will be hoping to have clawed at Labour’s poll lead and made ground on pushing down inflation, the main driver of the cost-of-living crisis, before announcing a polling date.

Mr Sunak has also had to deal with having his predecessors sniping from the side lines during his first year in office, contributions to the political debate that could continue if Tory favourability does not improve.

He succeeded Liz Truss after the fallout from the mini-budget led to her entering the history books as the shortest-serving prime minister in modern British history.

Since her quick exit from No 10, Ms Truss has looked to defend her record and has in turn criticised Mr Sunak, who she defeated during last year’s Tory leadership contest.

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Boris Johnson was critical of Rishi Sunak’s decision to axe HS2 (Aaron Chown/PA)

She used a packed rally on the fringes of the Tory Party conference to urge the Government to change course in a bid to boost growth, urging for corporation tax to be reduced to 19% or less and public spending to be slashed.

Mr Johnson was vocal in opposing Mr Sunak’s decision to cut HS2, a move he branded as a “betrayal” of the North of England and the levelling-up agenda he committed to during his landslide election victory in 2019.

The trimming of the high-speed project achieved the rare feat of uniting Mr Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron, with the three former premiers each speaking out against the announcement.

Mr Johnson has also called for more support and weapons to be handed to Ukraine in its fightback against Russia’s invading forces.

With the Tories consistently behind Labour in the polls, it is not only his predecessors’ contributions that Mr Sunak is having to watch out for.

It has been suggested that members of his Cabinet are readying themselves for a future leadership race, should the Prime Minister be forced out if he loses the next election.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s speech on migration in the United States last month was interpreted as a pitch to Tory activists.

And Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch’s backing for keeping the door open to leaving the European Convention on Human Rights to reduce unauthorised migration is a stance that is likely to play well with the right of the party in any future contest.