Rishi Sunak goes into the summer holidays in the same position he began the year: 20 points behind in the polls. In other ways it feels as if his premiership has gone backwards. Mortgage rates have risen above the levels they were under Liz Truss. The Tory psychodrama of the Boris Johnson era has led to two of the three by-elections taking place this week. Little progress has been made on Sunak’s ‘five priorities’ – the junior doctor strikes show no sign of abating and the Rwanda scheme is held up in the courts. ‘At this point Keir Starmer could probably announce backing for freedom of movement and still scrape in,’ says one downbeat minister.
The by-elections this week – in Uxbridge, Selby and Somerton and Frome – are adding to a sense of impending doom. ‘One was sparked by a Tory MP taking cocaine so we probably deserve it,’ says a government adviser anticipating defeat. Across the country, Tory MPs are adopting the brace position, either saying they won’t stand again or (as in the case of Ben Wallace) announcing in advance their intention to resign from cabinet.
Yet the political landscape is beginning to change as next year’s general election gets closer. Scrutiny of Labour’s plans for government is growing – and will continue to do so. This week Starmer faced his biggest clash yet with his backbenchers over his insistence that a Labour government would not scrap the two-child benefit cap.
The decision is based on a price tag – £1.3 billion – which Starmer’s shadow chancellor believes she cannot commit to. Rachel Reeves, the most influential member of the shadow cabinet, takes the view that she cannot afford to make more spending commitments for fears that the Tories will attack Labour as reckless on the economy.