Britain’s voters warm to new leader Rishi Sunak — but not to his fractious party

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing St. on his way to Parliament on Wednesday.
(Alberto Pezzali / Associated Press)

Rishi Sunak has been Britain’s prime minister for just over a month. In the tumultuous world of U.K. politics in 2022, that’s an achievement.

Sunak, who took office a month ago Friday, has steadied the nation after the unprecedentedly brief term of predecessor Liz Truss. Britain’s first prime minister of color, Sunak has stabilized the economy, reassured allies from Washington to Kyiv and even soothed the European Union after years of sparring between Britain and the bloc.

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


Partial popularity

Opinion polls have good and bad news for Sunak. The public likes the 42-year-old former investment banker, but his party is another matter.

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

“That’s definitely better than Boris Johnson was getting earlier this year,” said Gideon Skinner, Ipsos’ head of political research. But Sunak’s popularity “is not showing signs of rubbing off onto the Conservative Party brand,” he said.

The air-defense package comes as Russia has been pounding Ukraine’s power grid and other key infrastructure from the air, causing widespread blackouts.

Nov. 19, 2022

In the same survey, the Conservative Party was liked by just 26% and disliked by 62% — the worst figures for the party, known as the Tories, in 15 years. The Ipsos phone survey of 1,004 adults is considered accurate within plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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

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


It’s not impossible for the Conservatives to rebuild their popularity before the next election, by the end of 2024. But it won’t be easy. Polls suggest that the opposition Labor Party would win handily.

Ailing economy

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunak, then Britain’s finance minister, gained popularity by spending billions to support shuttered businesses and pay the salaries of furloughed workers.

Now he has to deliver bitter medicine. Britain’s economy is being weighed down by the pandemic, by Brexit and especially by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has driven global energy prices sky-high.

British Labor Party leader Keir Starmer and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a Remembrance Sunday ceremony
Labor Party leader Keir Starmer, left, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attend a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in London on Nov. 13.
(Toby Melville / Pool Photo)

Millions of Britons have seen energy bills soar, though a government-imposed cap has prevented even higher prices. Pandemic-related backlogs and staff shortages have caused record waiting times for care in the National Health Service.

The situation was made worse by Truss’ ill-advised September package of unfunded tax cuts, which torpedoed Britain’s reputation for economic prudence, weakened the pound to a historic low, drove up the cost of borrowing and triggered emergency central bank intervention. Truss resigned last month after less than two months on the job.

“I fully appreciate how hard things are,” Sunak said Oct. 25 in his first address to the nation as prime minister, warning of “difficult decisions to come.”

An emergency budget last week helped buoy the pound and calm markets — at the cost of $30 billion in tax hikes and the prospect of public spending cuts down the road.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development forecast this week that the U.K. economy will shrink by 0.4% in 2023 and grow by just 0.2% in 2024 — the worst outlook among Group of 7 countries.

War in Europe

Johnson’s departure from 10 Downing St. caused concern in Ukraine, where his staunch support for its resistance to the Russian invasion won gratitude and respect.

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

Rishi Sunak — a former investment banker of Indian descent — could become the first person of color to lead Britain.

Aug. 28, 2022

Sunak traveled to Kyiv this month to reassure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Britain’s policy would not change under his leadership.

“I am proud of how the U.K. stood with you from the very beginning,” Sunak told Zelensky. “And I am here today to say the United Kingdom will continue to stand with Ukraine.”

London is keeping up its flow of support, announcing in the last week that it would deliver antiaircraft guns, anti-drone technology and three Sea King helicopters to Ukraine.

But though support for Ukraine is secure, defense spending could face a squeeze. Sunak has dropped a commitment made by Truss to increase defense spending to 3% of gross domestic product by 2030.

Brexit headaches

Britain’s relations with its closest neighbors and biggest trading partners have been tense since it left the European Union in 2020. Johnson and Truss both seemed to delight in riling the bloc to placate the powerful “Euroskeptic” wing of the Conservative Party.

Sunak has been more emollient, making warm calls to European leaders in the days after taking office. Achieving concrete change is more difficult, given the power that ardent Brexiteers hold within the Conservative Party.

Britain’s departure from the EU brought customs checks and other barriers for businesses trading with the bloc, sparked a political crisis in Northern Ireland and ended the free flow of EU nationals into Britain to fill vacant jobs.

The news that Rishi Sunak has become Britain’s first prime minister of color was welcomed by many among Britain’s large Indian and South Asian communities.

Oct. 25, 2022

Britain could ease trade friction if it agreed to align with EU rules in some areas, such as veterinary or food standards. But after reports that the government was seeking closer ties riled Euroskeptics, Sunak said recently that he would not accept “alignment with EU laws.”

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

He said Sunak is a longtime Brexit supporter but also a pragmatist who “just wants a relationship that works — and it quite clearly doesn’t at the moment.”

“I think the problem is that he has no great fresh ideas as to how to make that work, and a lot of internal opposition,” Henig added.