Can Rishi Sunak turn things around for the Tories in 2023?

Prime minister must show progress on the big issues but could face summer rebellion if Conservatives do badly in local elections

Rishi Sunak outside No. 10
Mass strikes and the state of the NHS are among Sunak’s many problems
(Image credit: Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images)

Last year, otherwise known as “the year of the three prime ministers”, did much to trash the Conservatives’ long-held reputation for political stability and economic competence.

The party enters 2023 trailing Labour by more than 20 points in the latest Politico poll of polls and facing growing public anger on issues ranging from public sector strikes and illegal immigration to a stagnating economy and an NHS on the brink of collapse.

It all makes grim reading for Rishi Sunak, with “the consensus in Westminster – including among a significant number of Conservative MPs – that Labour will probably win a general election for the first time since 2005 when voters next go to the polls”, said PoliticsHome.

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What did the papers say?

Following “one of the most tumultuous years of politics in decades”, The Guardian reported that Sunak is “confident he has successfully managed to calm Tory MPs and – in the words of one senior aide – ‘bring back boring government’.”

The paper said: “He has sought to kick some controversial pieces of legislation into the long grass, performed quick U-turns and managed to satiate a parliamentary party with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for regicide.”

Yet while he may have succeeded in steadying the ship following the resignation of Boris Johnson and disastrous tenure of Liz Truss, “without coherent policies on the economy, immigration and levelling up, Sunak could start to lose support alarmingly quickly”, said Zoe Grunewald in The New Statesman.

HuffPost reported that Tory MPs have warned the prime minister “he must show voters he has made progress in 2023 on the economy, the NHS and illegal immigration if he is to stand any chance of winning the next election”.

His fellow Conservatives “want Sunak to tackle the big issues facing the country over the next 12 months”, the news site adds. “They say that unless he does, he faces being thrown out of Downing Street at the next election, which could be just over a year away.”

This will require the prime minister to be bolder – and more visible – than he has been up to now, with Politico’s London Playbook asking: “Will we see a bit more of the PM in 2023? Will he hold a press conference and take questions on the array of big issues facing the nation, or even find space in his grid for a keynote speech setting out his vision?”

“There’s a fine line between business as usual and saying nothing much,” agreed Paul Goodman in The Times. “As strikes mount, inflation persists, living standards plunge and Keir Starmer goes on the offensive, his critics are claiming that the prime minister is missing in action.”

What next?

March’s agenda-setting Budget followed by crucial local elections means the summer “will be a key moment as the party prepares for an election,” said PoliticsHome. Many Tory MPs will wait to see how the party performs in the local elections “before deciding whether to stand to keep hold of their seats in a general”, said the news site. And “if results are as bad as feared, some MPs could decide to cut their losses now, which will not paint a picture of a party on the rebound under Sunak”.

The PM told Tory donors and supporters in a new year’s letter reported in The Sun that he must tackle head-on the Covid backlog in the NHS and the small boat Channel crossings to have any chance of extending his stay in Downing Street.

But many believe this is all too little too late and that any attempt to promote culture war politics as a last throw of the dice to win over an increasingly sceptical public is doomed to fail.

Speaking to the Express and Star, Professor Alex de Ruyter, a director at Birmingham City University’s Centre for Brexit Studies, said: “For a country trapped in a cost of living crisis exacerbated by austerity and Brexit – both mandated by the Conservatives during their 12 years in office – trying to distract voters by being harsh on refugees or being anti 'woke' no longer cuts the mustard.”

Ultimately, the upcoming year could play out in two ways, said Andrew Grice in The Independent. “Will 2023 be a year of relative calm before an inevitable storm blows the Conservatives away in 2024? Or will the next 12 months see Rishi Sunak chip away at Labour’s opinion poll lead, making the next general election a much closer contest than many expect?” he wrote.

The former appears much the more likely scenario, but given what has happened over the last 12 months, it would be foolish to rule out the later entirely.

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