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Sunak bets House on presidential-style campaign

After Rishi Sunak’s troubled start to his election campaign, he must have viewed his itinerary on Friday with trepidation. The prime minister’s visit to Belfast’s Titanic Quarter led to inevitable questions about whether he was at the helm of a sinking ship.

Some 48 hours after he announced a July 4 general election in a rainstorm in Downing Street — with the image of a drenched premier splashed across every newspaper front page — Sunak is struggling to gain momentum at the start of a six-week race.

The Conservative campaign so far has been built around Sunak, while his cabinet has taken a back seat. The prime minister has toured the UK’s four nations in a blitz of publicity, making occasional mis-steps along the way.

Sunak admitted his flagship Rwanda asylum scheme would not be operational before polling day and his promised legislation for a “smoke-free generation” died on Thursday. Meanwhile, Tory MPs are rushing to quit before voters can issue their verdict.

The prime minister has challenged his Labour adversary Sir Keir Starmer to six television debates. Sunak claims Starmer lacks “courage”, but the Labour leader is playing it safe, insisting two head-to-head debates will suffice. Though on Friday evening Sky said the Labour leader had agreed to take part in an election leaders’ event in Grimsby.

The problem of a Tory presidential-style campaign, at least according to the polls, is that Sunak’s personal ratings have fallen so far in recent months that he is now even less loved than his unpopular party.

According to a YouGov survey this month, Sunak’s net favourability score is a dismal -51, compared with -49 for the Conservatives as a whole. Until the start of this year, the prime minister had seemed to be holding his party up.

Starmer is also less popular than his party, but on a lesser scale: his net favourability score is -17 compared with Labour’s -5.

Given the dire polling — the Conservatives typically trail Labour by over 20 per cent — many at Westminster are still trying to figure out why Sunak decided to go for a summer vote rather than wait until the autumn.

One longtime Tory adviser said that Sunak opted to go now because this was about as good as it was going to get. “All I can see ahead of us is risk,” the adviser said.

The prime minister took the decision on Wednesday after weeks of talks with his inner team, according to people close to the discussions. Oliver Dowden, deputy prime minister, was one of the few ministers in the loop at an early stage.

His chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith advocated going early, while campaign chief Isaac Levido wanted to wait until the autumn to allow voters to enjoy the fruits of a nascent economic recovery.

Sunak pored over the economic data, according to Tory officials, and concluded that July was the moment of maximum economic advantage and lowest political risk.

On Wednesday inflation fell to 2.3 per cent — close to the Bank of England’s target level — but economists expect it to nudge up in the coming months. Interest rate cuts, according to one Tory adviser, were “more and more distant”.

Crucially Jeremy Hunt, chancellor, concluded there would be no money for tax cuts: higher market interest rate expectations were adding to Britain’s debt servicing costs, while Sunak was opening the spending taps.

“The moment Rishi said last month we were going to increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP [by 2030], that meant there would not be an Autumn Statement,” said one Treasury insider.

A cabinet minister agreed there was no point in waiting: “It was always a mug’s game to think that people’s feelings would suddenly change between July and September.”

Neville Hill, an economist with consultancy Hybrid Economics, said “the prospect of them having an autumn of bumper economic news has diminished”.

Meanwhile the political risks of waiting were growing: increased Tory infighting, defections and resignations, plus a summer of crossings in small boats by migrants were among the identifiable problems.

Many cabinet ministers only found out about the July election on Wednesday through social media speculation. By the time Sunak announced the July 4 date to his cabinet, he had already seen King Charles to seek a dissolution of parliament.

With the campaign sprung upon on the party at such short notice, concerns have already been expressed by Tory officials about the structure of the campaign and party donations.

One official said many megadonors were wavering about whether to write big cheques, angered by the party’s decision to scrap the non-dom status.

Some Tory figures meanwhile grumbled about the party’s lack of “good donor care” under Sunak’s leadership, complaining that medium-sized contributors have been neglected.

“There’s a whole group of people who used to get regular WhatsApps, emails, taken out for drinks — and that hasn’t happened lately,” said one. “Rishi doesn’t even ask people for money, he just expects them to give”.

The party’s dismal poll ratings also mean it has so far struggled to attract key Tory figures in the world of PR to help with communications, which has dented morale. 

High-profile PR figures, such as ex-Vote Leave director of communications Paul Stephenson and former Number 10 director of communications Lee Cain, have not yet materialised at CCHQ, one insider said.

A Conservative campaign official insisted fundraising had gone “enormously well” under Sunak’s tenure as leader. They added that figures like Stephenson ran businesses that they could not drop at short notice to enrol in a political campaign.

The odds for Sunak of securing a Tory majority are put at 25/1 by Ladbrokes — extremely long odds in a two-horse race — but some Tory officials say the prime minister genuinely thinks he can still win.

“He’s not stupid, he can see it’s an uphill struggle,” said a Tory official at the heart of the election campaign. “But if you don’t think you can win, you might as well go home.”

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