Sunak’s words (or lack of) may seal his political fate

Sunak’s words (or lack of) may seal his political fate
Rishi Sunak appeared on 'Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg' on 25 June (Credit: BBC)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s wooden appearance on the BBC’s Sunday morning political talk show drew criticism from unexpected corners.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak doesn’t do a formal sit-down interview with Laura Kuenssberg very often. In fact the last one was in January, so it was really important to see how he was developing as a Prime Minister, politician and leader when he turned up on Sunday.

As we all know now it turned out to be a very remarkable Sunday not just for Russia but possibly even for the world.

The Prime Minister who had agreed to turn up to launch his Workforce plans for the National Health Service also had an opportunity to shine with his grip on world affairs as the attempted coup against President Putin first startled and later fizzled out.

Naturally, Kuenssberg asked detailed questions on what it all meant to someone in a position to be as well-informed in the UK as anyone on the unfolding momentous events — and answer came their very little.

The situation in Russia was rapidly evolving and Sunak was monitoring the situation closely, keeping in touch with the UK’s allies and indeed planned to talk to them later in the day.

Four questions later the situation was still evolving and the Prime Minister was still monitoring the situation and planning to talk to Britain’s allies later in the day, although he was marginally more assured, although not much more helpful, when asked about the plight of British citizens in Russia.

It was firm Foreign Office advice that British citizens should avoid going to Russia etc etc..

No information of any value was imparted in answer to the questions about a situation that really was still evolving that Sunday morning, but it was still revealing about the desperate weaknesses of the communication skills of Rishi Sunak the politician.

A PM of numbers, not words

It was yet another example of how Sunak is given a line to take in advance, does not have the ability to think on his feet, and endlessly repeats the script like an automaton.

He may or may not be good with numbers but words are definitely a problem. Perhaps when his time in Downing Street is over he might devote more time to studying the Humanities.

In the House of Commons he has embarrassed himself and fellow Tory MPs by replying to questions on the housing shortage or rising mortgage rates with the mantra that “we are stopping the boats.”

The Government is not even managing to do that, of course, but it is the endless robotic repetition of a pre-concocted answer that he hopes will please the Conservative faithful, that catches the eye.

Even when Sunak got on to his “historic” plans to increase recruitment for the NHS from “classroom to clinic” he stumbled over his pre-planned lines by starting to claim that waiting lists were coming down.

Kuenssberg was having none of it and had to interrupt to point out that in fact waiting lists were rising and stood at an all time high of 7.2 million.

That was the pandemic claimed Sunak only for a firm Kuenssberg to point out that waiting lists had been rising before the pandemic. She could also have added that every other developed nation had suffered from a pandemic too without achieving such record waiting lists.

Recruitment and training drives were all very well but, as Kuenssberg pointed out, it takes seven years to train a doctor and three years to train a nurse. There was little answer when Sunak was challenged on what the short-term benefits of the Government’s long-awaited Workforce Plan would be.

The reality is that last year more than 40,000 nurses left the Nurse’s Register, around half under the age of 45 and more than 4,000 headed off to higher wages in Australia.

This is all very difficult because cutting hospital waiting lists was one of Sunak’s five “pledges” announced with a great fanfare earlier this year.

Downgraded pledges

As all five pledges, which include halving the rate of inflation by the end of this year, are currently under water, they were first downgraded to “targets.”

By Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg cutting waiting lists had moved on from being a pledge, and then a target to being a mere “priority.”

Just occasionally Sunak’s use of words can actually be revealing of his likely political fate.

The Kuenssberg programme managed to get even worse for the Prime Minister thanks to the appearance of Labour supporter Ben Elton who now mainly lives in Australia.

As part of the joys of live television the comedian and author said the Prime Minister was “as much of a mendacious narcissistic sociopath as his previous boss.”

Such a judgement sounds a touch severe. Surely in the narcissistic sociopath stakes Boris Johnson is in a class of his own.

Elton was closer to the mark when he claimed that Sunak had delivered an “extraordinary Orwellian, meaningless, evasive word salad.”

Strangely where Elton heard a word salad, Sun columnist Trevor Kavanagh saw “a refreshing new version” of Sunak as a “fluent, combative leader” engaged in a kill-or-cure fight against inflation.

Unfortunately, at least for now the rate of inflation is still rising not falling and of course his solution for the moment is telling the British to hold their nerve, stick with his plan “and we will get through this.”

A caricature encasing the PM

Prime Minister Sunak will have enjoyed the praise of the Sun columnist but he might find the words of one of his supporters, indeed admirers, rather more painful.

Former Tory MP and Times columnist Matthew Parris, who still believes that Sunak has a chance of winning the next election in the face of “meddling, finger-wagging Labour”, nonetheless concluded his Saturday piece with the following words.

“A caricature of our Prime Minister is taking shape, and within months it will set hard. It’s the caricature of a small timid, and anxious person at the mercy of bullies,” Parris wrote.

Rude Labour voices on the internet swiftly said: that’s because it’s true.

Parris concluded: “This isn’t Rishi Sunak, but the image could soon encase him. He must smash it before it crushes him.”

He certainly didn’t manage to smash the image on Sunday.

As a man of numbers, Sunak will be only too aware that in some polls the Labour lead is running as high as 25% — 19% in the poll of polls.

As an enthusiastic Brexiteer, Sunak much also have noticed that we now live in a Remain/Rejoin country with 60% now believing that Brexit was a mistake.

Rishi Sunak will probably continue to monitor the situation very closely.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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