Katy Balls

Rishi Sunak’s popularity test

Rishi Sunak's popularity test
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Rishi Sunak ended 2021 as the most popular politician in the country. A YouGov poll for the final quarter of the year found that 31 per cent of all adults had a positive opinion of the Chancellor compared to 28 per cent for Nicola Sturgeon and 26 per cent for Boris Johnson. However, ending 2022 in the same situation looks rather ambitious. 

As the cost of living crisis worsens, Sunak is under pressure both from the public and his own party to step in and ease the burden on households in tomorrow's Spring Statement. A poll out today suggests he has plenty of work to do to convince voters he has the right plan. The YouGov survey finds that almost two-thirds of Britons say the government is handling the economy badly while two-thirds believe they are handling taxation badly.  

As for Sunak – who is still the bookies' favourite to succeed Johnson as Tory leader – just over a quarter say he is now doing a good job as Chancellor, with a third concluding he is actually doing a bad job. His personal ratings have also been sliding in recent weeks which pollsters put as much down to Partygate – and his association to the Prime Minister – as the cost of living. According to Redfield and Wilton, the Chancellor is still in the positive just – with a net approval rating of +3% whereas Johnson has a negative approval rating of -15%. 

Members of the Labour leader's office hope that he will soon fall behind Keir Starmer. Labour politicians have been at pains to dismiss Sunak's credentials as a future leader – with one party figure even citing to the New Statesman Sunak's height (he is shorter than Starmer) as evidence he would not be an election winner. 

So, how can Sunak weather this crisis? One of the issues he faces is that many voters associate him with his expansive Covid support package and talk of 'whatever it takes'. Even if there are new cost of living measures brought in, they will not come close to the levels of support offered during the pandemic. 

While there is talk of some tax-cutting announcements tomorrow, any measures Sunak announces will be limited in how much they help with the cost of living crisis. The Chancellor was keen to press over the weekend when on the broadcast round that government could not fix all of the current problems and that these are global problems so there would be hardship no matter what the government does. It doesn't help Sunak's standing with a lot of Tory MPs that he is viewed as the key figure in arguing that the NI rise ought to stay despite backbench pressure to axe it. 

Sunak's supporters argue that the fall in his popularity was inevitable – the Chancellor has gone from paying people's wages for over a year to presiding over a cost of living crisis and high inflation. It's notable, too, that Johnson's supporters appear more relaxed than before about whether or not the Chancellor poses a threat. Sunak has long been seen as the biggest leadership threat. 'The cost of living crisis will deal with the Rishi issue,' says one parliamentary supporter of the Prime Minister. 

Among Sunak's supporters, the hope is that voters will view him as a values politician doing his best in a difficult situation. As for his standing within the parliamentary party, the best hope is that he can fulfil the promise made to Tory MPs after the Budget that every marginal pound going forward will go to cutting taxes. While Treasury figures are keen to play down expectations for the Spring Statement, the changes at the Budget to the Universal Credit taper rate were intended to be the first in a series of tax cuts – starting with those who need them most. MPs will be looking for announcements tomorrow that suggest that this is part of a new trend, rather than a one off.