UK voters rave about new leader Sunak, but not about his party

By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Rishi Sunak has been Britain’s prime minister for a month. In the tumultuous world of UK politics in 2022, that’s quite an achievement.

Sunak, who took office a month ago on Friday, October 25, has stabilized the nation after the brief tenure of his predecessor Liz Truss. Britain’s first black prime minister, Sunak, has stabilized the economy, reassured allies from Washington to Kyiv and even calmed the European Union after years of clashes between Britain and the bloc.

But Sunak’s challenges are just beginning. He is grappling with a slowing economy, a cost-of-living crisis and a ruling Conservative Party that is increasingly unpopular after 12 years in power.

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Opinion polls have good news and bad news for Sunak. The public quite likes the 42-year-old former investment banker, but his game is something else.

In a poll conducted by Ipsos pollster, 47% of respondents said they liked the prime minister, while 41% disliked him.

“That’s definitely better than what Boris Johnson was getting earlier this year,” said Gideon Skinner, director of political research at Ipsos. But he said Sunak’s popularity “shows no signs of rubbing off on the brand of the Conservative Party.”

In the same poll, the Conservative Party was liked by just 26% and disliked by 62%, the worst numbers for the party in 15 years. The Ipsos telephone survey of 1,004 adults is considered accurate to within plus or minus four percentage points.

Many voters welcome Sunak as a change from Truss and his predecessor Johnson, who resigned in July after three scandal-plagued years in office. But the party has been in power since 2010, making it difficult for the Conservatives to avoid being blamed for the country’s financial woes.

Persistent allegations of misconduct are also tarnishing his image. On Wednesday, Sunak appointed a senior lawyer to investigate allegations of intimidation against his deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab.

It is not impossible for the Conservatives to regain their popularity before the next elections, scheduled for the end of 2024. But it will not be easy. Current polls suggest that the Labor Party would win handily.

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Sunak, then Britain’s chief of the treasury, gained popularity spending billions to support shuttered businesses and pay the wages of laid-off workers.

Now he has to deliver a bitter medicine. The British economy is being affected by the pandemic, by Brexit and, especially, by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has triggered world energy prices.

Millions of people in Britain have seen energy bills skyrocket, though a government-imposed cap has prevented even higher prices. Pandemic-related delays and staff shortages have caused record wait times for medical care at Britain’s National Health Service.

The situation was made worse by Truss’s ill-advised package of unfunded tax cuts in September, which ruined the UK’s reputation for economic prudence, weakened the pound, raised borrowing costs and prompted emergency central bank intervention. Truss resigned last month after less than two months on the job.

“I fully appreciate how difficult things are,” Sunak said in his first address to the nation on October 25, warning of “difficult decisions ahead”.

An emergency budget last week helped boost sterling and calm markets, at the cost of £25bn ($30bn) in tax increases and the prospect of future government spending cuts.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development forecast this week that the UK economy will contract by 0.4% in 2023 and grow by just 0.2% in 2024, the worst outlook among the Group of Seven industrialized countries. .

Boris Johnson’s departure has caused concern in Kyiv, where his staunch support for Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion has won admiration and respect.

Britain has given Ukraine 2.3 billion pounds ($2.8 billion) in military aid since the start of the war, more than any country except the United States, and has pressed its allies to do more to help Kyiv. .

Sunak traveled to Kyiv last week to assure President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that British policy would not change under his leadership. “I am proud of how the UK was with you from the beginning,” Sunak told Zelenskyy. “And I’m here today to say that the UK will continue to support Ukraine.”

London is keeping up its flow of support and announced last week that it will deliver anti-aircraft guns, anti-drone technology and three Sea King helicopters to Ukraine.

But while support for Ukraine is certain, defense spending could be cut. Sunak has abandoned a commitment made by Truss to increase defense spending to 3% of gross domestic product by 2030.

Britain’s relations with its closest neighbors and major trading partners have been strained since it left the now 27-nation European Union in 2020. Johnson and Truss seemed to enjoy goading the bloc to placate the powerful eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party.

Sunak has been more emollient, making warm appeals to European leaders in the days since he took office. Achieving concrete change is more difficult, given the power that fervent Brexiteers have within the Conservatives.

Britain’s departure from the EU in 2020 brought customs checks and other barriers to companies trading with the bloc, sparked a political crisis in Northern Ireland and ended the free flow of EU citizens to Britain to take up jobs. vacancies.

Britain could ease trade friction by agreeing to align with EU rules in some areas, such as veterinary or food standards. But after reports that the government was seeking closer ties angered eurosceptics, Sunak said this week that he would not accept “alignment with EU laws.”

David Henig, a trade expert at the European Center for International Political Economy, said the backlash “has revealed how deep Europe’s problem runs for Rishi Sunak and for the Conservative Party.”

He said Sunak is a long-time Brexiteer but also a pragmatist who “just wants a relationship that works, and it’s clearly not working at the moment.”

“I think the problem is that he doesn’t have great fresh ideas on how to make that work, and a lot of internal opposition,” Henig said. ___

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