Rishi Sunak still has a path to victory

James Johnson is co-founder of J.L. Partners and regularly runs polls and focus groups. He previously ran polling in Downing Street under U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.

Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have an unpalatable task on Thursday. In the wake of Liz Truss’ disastrous premiership and a dire global context, they will need to deliver news no government wants to: steep tax rises and spending cuts.

With a looming 2024 election and a 20-point deficit in the polls, it is easy to dismiss the government’s prospects. But with the right approach, there is a landing zone for Sunak’s so-called Autumn Statement which could yet win voters over.

The first prerequisite is honesty.

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The British public are not naïve about the challenges the economy faces. For many months — a lot longer than most of Westminster — people in my focus groups have expressed their concern about the size of the debt left from the coronavirus pandemic. As Angela, a swing voter from Birmingham, said to me: “We’ve all got to pay for this mess, we understand that, there’s no way round it. Everybody gotta step up.” Money does not grow on trees for them, so why should it for the country?

Voters are also savvy enough to know that there are other reasons beyond COVID for the mire we are in. Polled by J.L. Partners, 35 percent name the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a major causal factor. But more — 37 percent — blame the Conservative government directly.

There is little patience for the sort of linguistic tricks Truss deployed by trying to point to Russia’s belligerency as the cause of the crisis. Just as he did on the steps of Downing Street when he took office, Sunak must be clear that the previous government bears some of the blame.

The main plea of the public is for government to level with them. The fact is that voters are grown-ups. If the government treats them as so, they will earn a hearing.

It is not inevitable that tough decisions must be unpopular ones. Some of former Chancellor George Osborne’s most somber budget statements, as late as 2014, prove that.

But as well as being honest, tough decisions need to feel fair.

What British voters mean by fairness is two-pronged. There is a “national” and very widely-held notion of fairness: that the most vulnerable in society should not be worse off, ignored, or unfairly targeted. It was this that was breached by Truss’ Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng whose mini-budget was widely interpreted as giving handouts to the richest while leaving the poor to suffer. In the words of one voter in a focus group shortly afterwards, the rich benefited “while the rest of us dry our teabags to use the next day.” 

There is a chance Sunak could pleasantly surprise voters on this front. Though a windfall tax on energy companies and measures to squeeze the richest could be on the cards, the public are not expecting the most affluent to pay more. If they end up doing so, voters may look more favorably on the statement.

But there is another, less understood notion of fairness that is just as important to British voters: a personal one. This stems from the perception that those who work hard day in and day out are not rewarded or are overlooked. While they pay into the system, many working people feel it is others — from big bankers to illegal immigrants — who seem to get all the perks. These are the voters who feel, like Geoff, that we give “a hundred million pounds to India to tarmac their roads while where I live has so many potholes.” Or Susan, who sees “pensioners, those who work hard, war veterans, myself” struggling while others cross the Channel illegally to claim “freebies” and “act like they’re in Magaluf.” 

These feelings are particularly acute amongst those voters who sit just above the income threshold for benefits but still struggle to get by. Luke Tryl and Rachel Wolf have commented on how critical this group is to the Conservative voting coalition. I have written for POLITICO before about how the last Autumn Statement during Boris Johnson’s premiership made the error of ignoring these people with increases to the minimum wage and benefits that hold little relevance for this group. Their concerns and their financial situation — this personal notion of fairness as well as the national — must be at the forefront of Thursday’s statement for it to resonate with them.

Would this be enough? The Conservative brand is clearly in trouble: ask voters to choose between the two main parties to handle the economy — traditionally a key Tory strength — and Labour is the most popular choice according to YouGov. 

But name Sunak himself in the question and the Conservatives either tie or take the lead. And in the latest Redfield and Wilton Strategies poll, Sunak leads Keir Starmer on the ability to build a strong economy and to get things done. In a context where the leader matters more to voters than ever, there is a path for the Conservatives if Sunak can build on his personal reputation.

As Brian, a construction worker disaffected with the Conservatives under Truss, put it in my most recent focus group: “We are looking for a fixer.” It is Sunak’s job to show he can do just that.

Fixing the mess will not be a sufficient condition for victory in 2024. For that, the Conservatives will not only need to steady the ship but go on to present a bold and fresh vision for the future. Nor is a successful Autumn Statement going to generate a polling boost overnight. 

But if the prime minister and his chancellor can get this week right, delivering an Autumn Statement that is not merely Austerity 2.0 but a new approach that they can convincingly defend as both honest and fair, the Conservatives under Sunak still have a road to recovery. 

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