Rishi Sunak will shortly become the third Conservative prime minister this year. But he is likely to be a different type of leader to the two that came before. Boris Johnson was an optimistic boosterish prime minister who tended to be better on big vision than detail. It led to a difficulty governing that eventually proved terminal. Meanwhile, Liz Truss was a leader who prided herself on radicalism and shaking things up. In the end, such urges led to her downfall.

Sunak is a much more sober politician than his predecessors – and that’s not just down to the fact that he is teetotal. He believes in trade-offs – not cakeism. He is closer to a bean counter (when Truss used the term mockingly in a debate this summer, he spoke up on their behalf) to a gambler. He is a geek rather than a party animal – preferring Star Wars sessions or Emily in Paris to late-night parties. And his conservatism differs to Johnson’s – his founding belief is in fiscal conservatism.

As the Conservative Party attempts to unify once again after a fractious year, Sunak’s supporters hope that the moment calls for his style of leadership. But he still has to win critics round. It’s notable how many “Red Wall” MPs and members of the European Research Group stayed away from his first address to Tory MPs.

During Sunak’s time as chancellor, he began on a high – with stratospheric approval ratings compared to his Cabinet colleagues. It wasn’t just the fact that he was splashing large sums of money through the various Covid support schemes. It was his words and the way he spoke at the various press conferences. Pollsters say in focus groups the clip that tends to win the warmest reception is when he said at a conference, the Government would do “whatever it takes” to get the country through the pandemic.

However, the aftermath of the pandemic proved more testing for this fairly new politician. Not only did Sunak find himself criticised for being too tight on spending, such as on free school meals, he also found personal scandal – through his formerly dom-dom wife’s tax affairs and the revelation that he possessed a US green card for part of his time as chancellor.

It’s these events that have led to a perception of Sunak as a member of the global elite who cannot relate to the lives of everyday people. There were hints of that over the weekend in the way Sunak’s rivals pitched themselves. Penny Mordaunt said she was the candidate who understood people’s lives best, while supporters of Boris Johnson briefed that Sunak would probably hang around for a few months before escaping to California.

These criticisms also haunted his original bid to be prime minister. Even aides on his campaign were worried by how many times he would refer to his time living in America in his answers. While it was an honest answer – Sunak ultimately thinks very favourably of the time he spent living in the US, where the family still have a home – the concern was that it pointed to a political naivety.

There are a lot of Tory MPs and aides who have now, through the shortcomings of Truss and the financial challenge, come to the conclusion that Sunak was their best option by a country mile. “I’m so relieved,” said one “Blue Wall” MP after the result was announced.

Yet there are still questions as to how he will perform. Truss did not just win the original leadership contest by promising tax cuts alone, it’s also the case that Sunak struggled to capture the public’s attention. He can come across as too smooth.

The hope is that hard work rather than snazzy press will slowly win back the approval of the public. What secret weapons does Sunak have up his sleeve? His close colleagues say the idea of him as an internationalist is wide of the mark. He spends more time in his constituency – Richmond in North Yorkshire – than most MPs do in theirs. Given Richmond’s rural nature, he has learnt much about farming since arriving there.

But others worry that his rise was so sudden, it means he is not as politically astute as his predecessors. “Rishi is a very good person but he doesn’t always get politics,” says one MP who backed him both times around.

Labour MPs have been quick, too, to try to target his wealth. During a cost of living crisis how does it look to have a prime minister who is married to a billionaire? How can he relate? His supporters point to his own more humble beginnings as the son of a pharmacist, at whose shop he helped out.

The sense of his wealth has clearly cut through. A word cloud by the polling group Savanta ComRes found that the word most commonly associated with him is “rich”. The better news for Sunak is the words that follow: capable, clever and good. A lot of politicians would kill for those. By the end of her time in No 10, Truss’s pointed to incompetence. It’s also the case that attacks on wealth don’t always go as planned. They can backfire.

Sunak must now lead the country through what is likely to be spending cuts and tax rises. If he is to have any chance of selling this to his party and the public, he needs to be able to explain why he is doing it and point to a sense of fairness.

He needs to tell a story. It rests on bringing back the values pitch that landed well in his early days – and combining it with a competence that has been missing from No 10 in recent years. It’s a tall order – but it’s the Tories’ best hope at avoiding extinction.

QOSHE - Rishi Sunak's biggest challenge will be convincing the public that he understands their reality - Katy Balls
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Rishi Sunak's biggest challenge will be convincing the public that he understands their reality

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25.10.2022

Rishi Sunak will shortly become the third Conservative prime minister this year. But he is likely to be a different type of leader to the two that came before. Boris Johnson was an optimistic boosterish prime minister who tended to be better on big vision than detail. It led to a difficulty governing that eventually proved terminal. Meanwhile, Liz Truss was a leader who prided herself on radicalism and shaking things up. In the end, such urges led to her downfall.

Sunak is a much more sober politician than his predecessors – and that’s not just down to the fact that he is teetotal. He believes in trade-offs – not cakeism. He is closer to a bean counter (when Truss used the term mockingly in a debate this summer, he spoke up on their behalf) to a gambler. He is a geek rather than a party animal – preferring Star Wars sessions or Emily in Paris to late-night parties. And his conservatism differs to Johnson’s – his founding belief is in fiscal conservatism.

As the Conservative Party attempts to unify once again after a fractious year, Sunak’s supporters hope that the moment calls for his style of leadership. But he still has to win critics round. It’s notable how many “Red Wall” MPs and members of the European Research Group stayed away from his first address to Tory MPs.

During Sunak’s........

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