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Sunak hopes 'sensible populist' does better than stability

Alex Wickham, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

LONDON — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak came to power almost a year ago promising to bring a business-like sensibility to U.K. politics, an antidote to Liz Truss’s failed 49-day experiment in radical fiscal change.

Five pledges on the economy and public services were meant to help voters track his progress, and underscore a sense of method and forward-planning. And the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker has been credited with restoring a feeling of stability in Westminster.

Problem is, the results of what Sunak calls his pragmatic solutions have been mixed. Health service waiting lists, for instance, are higher than ever. And a year on from the disastrous budget that ultimately brought down Truss, Sunak and his Conservatives are still lagging far behind Labour in the polls.

The solution? Sensible populism. That’s according to a Sunak ally, who spoke privately to describe the prime minister’s new strategy, which got its first formal airing this week.

Britons are due to go to the polls before January 2025, and Sunak’s shift into election mode has been in the works for months, waiting for the economy to start to improve, people familiar with his thinking said. This week, inflation undershot expectations and the Bank of England hit pause on almost two years of rate increases, although largely because the risk of a recession is growing.

Over the coming weeks, Sunak is expected to announce major policy shifts on housing, infrastructure, immigration and industrial policy, the people said. Sunak saw his five pledges as the water-treading first phase of his premiership, and the next is to take the fight to Labour leader Keir Starmer and erode the opposition party’s 20-point lead in national opinion polls.


But Sunak’s first big effort to reset the narrative was marked by chaos, when his plan to water down the government’s green agenda was leaked to the BBC. It triggered frantic efforts by Downing Street to fend off criticism from business and some Tory MPs, before Sunak finally gave a televised speech confirming the move.

Sunak framed his decision to push back a ban on new petrol and diesel cars as part of his new approach to tackling climate change that would put a “fairer and more proportionate” burden on Britons, while bringing the U.K. into line with other countries including the EU. But it also included language common to the climate-skeptic political right. It was a clear dividing line with Labour.

One ally described Sunak’s outlook as a combination of optimism and ambition for the future economy, couched in fiscal prudence and a deep vein of social conservatism. A second person, the one who coined the sensible populist framing, called it a common-sense approach to universal issues, but which particularly excite a typically Conservative voter. One supporter of the prime minister said it could help the Conservatives deprive Labour of a parliamentary majority.

A Tory lawmaker took a less flattering view, characterizing Sunak as a Treasury bean-counter with a right-wing streak, the implication being that his approach is at odds with voters demanding an improvement in public services.


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