JASON GROVES: Rishi's best month in office came as his most bold

JASON GROVES: Rishi’s best month in office came when he was at his most bold and combative. Something to ponder on his sun lounger!

  • The workaholic Prime Minister is embarking on first family holiday in four years

When Rishi Sunak touches down in California today he could be forgiven for not wanting to come back.

The workaholic Prime Minister is embarking on what aides say is his first family holiday in four years. In his own words this week, he has ‘worked his socks off’ since becoming PM following the chaotic departure of Liz Truss last October.

But if the opinion polls are anything to go by, he has not got much to show for all that toil.

The Tories enjoyed the briefest of honeymoon periods at the turn of the year, but Labour has now re-established a poll lead of almost 20 points. Mr Sunak’s personal ratings have also been on the slide as he struggles to deliver on his five big pledges of halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing national debt, shrinking NHS waiting lists and stopping the small boats.

Yet when he dons his sunglasses and heads to Santa Monica beach, observers may note a surprising spring in the Prime Ministerial step. For despite the obvious headwinds, Mr Sunak believes that his hard work is beginning to pay off, his luck finally starting to turn.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak celebrates a successful month as he plays a pub game during a visit to the Great British Beer Festival at Olympia, in London

Despite the obvious headwinds, Mr Sunak believes that his hard work is beginning to pay off

Friends grumble that for the first half of the year he ‘could not catch a break’. Whether it was inflation rising remorselessly, millions of public sector workers downing tools, or the courts blocking the Rwanda migrant plan, it seemed he was snookered at every turn.

One ally noted that there was no six-month progress report on the PM’s pledges ‘because there wasn’t much progress to report’. But in the last few weeks, there have been the first chinks of light — as well as a new, bolder approach from the PM.

After months of secret talks, he unveiled a new offer on public sector pay which looks set to end the debilitating teachers’ strike that was threatening to head into the winter and beyond.

Then, last month, the most recent headline inflation figures fell more sharply than expected, putting that goal of halving inflation by the end of the year back on track. One senior Tory official drily noted that the BBC was so taken aback by the unexpectedly good news that it had to change the headline on its online story five times that morning.

And then there was the Uxbridge by-election, which had been branded ‘unwinnable’ by Tory high command, but which the Conservatives somehow won as Labour suffered a backlash over Sadiq Khan’s hated £12.50-a-day Ulez tax on the drivers of older vehicles.

Ministers also believe next week’s growth figures will be better than pundits are predicting, extending the run of good fortune into the summer.

The margin of victory in Uxbridge was just 495 but the impact on both main parties has been profound. Those votes have had a galvanising effect on Mr Sunak and renewed his conviction that Sir Keir Starmer is beatable.

He has looked revitalised in his public appearances, and a plan to ‘take the gloves off’ with Mr Starmer has been brought forward. So when this newspaper revealed that unscrupulous lawyers were charging thousands of pounds to submit false asylum claims for illegal immigrants, the PM had no qualms about linking the story to Sir Keir’s opposition to plans to strengthen the UK’s borders.

‘This is what we’re up against,’ he said. ‘The Labour Party, a subset of lawyers, criminal gangs — they’re all on the same side, propping up a system of exploitation that profits from getting people to the UK illegally’ — triggering an angry backlash from the Left.

There is much more of this to come. Tory strategists believe that Uxbridge demonstrated the value of highlighting what Labour actually does when it gets its hands on the levers of power.

‘Starmer tries not to take a position on most things,’ one said. ‘But whether it is Sadiq Khan and Ulez, the Welsh government and NHS waiting lists or Starmer’s own opposition to any form of border control, you can see the outline of how Labour would govern, and the more people see it, the less they will like it.’

Mr Sunak rose to public prominence during the pandemic as the architect of the furlough scheme — the ultimate in big government. But friends of the PM say the recent more forthright stance on issues like immigration, the environment and trans rights is much closer to his real world view.

He is said to have been chuffed last week when the Economist labelled him the most Right-wing PM since Margaret Thatcher. Some ministers now want to see more of this side of him. ‘It’s great to see the PM taking on this anti-car stuff,’ said one. ‘I think it’s closer to what he actually believes, it’s popular and Labour will never match it, so why not make a virtue of it?’

Labour had predicted it would ‘win big’ in Uxbridge until it was confronted with the reality of voter anger over Ulez (Pictured: Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer with London Mayor Sadiq Khan)

Labour had predicted it would ‘win big’ in Uxbridge until it was confronted with the reality of voter anger over Ulez. Despite winning a thumping victory in the Selby and Ainsty by-election on the same night, the failure to take Boris Johnson’s former seat appears to have triggered a strange crisis of confidence for the Labour leadership.

A planned reshuffle was put on hold. And previously unseen tensions have emerged between Sir Keir Starmer and his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves. Miss Reeves is a central figure in the Starmer project, helping to provide the political nous he lacks after a long career in the law. Until now they have been inseparable. But in the week that followed she contradicted him in public twice — a crack that senior Tories believe could develop into a wider rift as the election approaches.

The first time was when Miss Reeves came out firmly against the Ulez expansion, saying it was the wrong time to ‘clobber’ hard-working families, while Sir Keir lamely declared it was ‘not a yes/no issue’. Then, over the Coutts banking scandal, Sir Keir backed the departure of NatWest chief Dame Alison Rose shortly before his shadow chancellor angrily accused ministers of hounding her out.

For his part, Mr Sunak now has a little space to finalise plans for a major ‘reset’ in the autumn. The Tory Party conference in Manchester in October is likely to be the last before the election and a rare opportunity to get an unfiltered message to the public.

The five pledges will stay, but allies say the PM will also try to inject a bit of much-needed optimism as he sets out his vision for Britain. ‘He wants to show there is hope on the horizon,’ said one.

Before that, the PM will conduct a reshuffle of his top team next month designed to show the public that the Conservative Party has not run out of energy, ideas and people.

Senior aides have even discussed whether to replace Jeremy Hunt, who has done nothing wrong, but who will have been around at the top of government for a very long time by the next election.

Mr Sunak is not yet sold on the idea, but the fact it is even being discussed underlines the scale of change that some think is needed before he seeks a second term.

Straitened economic circumstances and stubborn inflation mean that tax cuts are likely to have to wait until the Budget next March, but the PM is weighing up whether to dangle the prospect this autumn.

There is an ongoing debate over whether to take the traditional route of trimming a penny or two off income tax, with some senior Tories warning the impact would be lost amid the rising cost of living. Eye-catching alternatives, such as completely abolishing inheritance tax are now being considered.

Unlike his immediate predecessors Mr Sunak does not have to worry about the prospect of an imminent leadership challenge. He has a remarkably free hand.

As he relaxes on his sun lounger this week, he might reflect that his best month in office has coincided with his boldest and most combative behaviour. To have any hope of winning next year he will have to be bolder still when he returns.

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