For any voters who have tuned into recent prime minister’s questions, Labour’s attack lines have been consistent and brutal. Rishi Sunak is weak; he lives in terror of his backbenchers; he is, to use Keir Starmer’s retro-dessert reference this week: a “blancmange”.
One thing is clear. For the head of a government that still enjoys a healthy 60-plus majority in the Commons, Sunak is curiously unable to tell his MPs what to do.
At the start of this week the prime minister dropped compulsory house-building targets for local authorities amid a major backbench rebellion, despite pleas from other Tories that this would be a nimbys’ charter, further poisoning the party’s position with younger voters.
A day later it emerged that another wave of Tory unrest, largely from a different wing of the party, had prompted Sunak to signal he would reverse on another stated policy and lift a de facto ban on new onshore wind projects in England.
It is a near-permanent rule of politics that a change of stance by a leader will prompt triumphant cries of “U-turn!” from opponents, however sensible or anticipated, meaning Starmer’s weekly attacks will have come as no surprise to Sunak.
What will focus more minds in No 10 is the views of Tory backbenchers. Here, it is fair to say, the jury remains out on a PM little more than six weeks into the job.
“Is he indecisive and weak, or just pragmatic? I believe the latter – but I also mainly hope that,” one MP said.
“At least it’s not chaos any more,” another said. “We’re still enjoying that part. Anything else would be a bonus.”
One of the paradoxes faced by Sunak is that his growing reputation for bending with the political wind is arguably in part a product of the same merits that made him so appealing to Conservative MPs in the wake of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Both former PMs were themselves hardly averse to U-turns. Johnson capitulated on dozens of subjects, most famously to footballer Marcus Rashford on free school meals, and over the 2020 GCSE results algorithm.
Even more spectacular and speedy about-turns were to come under Truss, who sacked her chancellor and junked more or less the entire economic orthodoxy that won her the job within weeks of taking over.
What Johnson and Truss had to their credit, in Tory MPs’ minds, was the image of being conviction politicians, who in other areas would ignore backbench and public pressure for long periods.
Sunak’s contrasting selling point to his traumatised post-Truss party was as a technocrat, a political managing director, someone who would dispense with the daily dramas and ideological obsessions, and listen to their concerns.
With this, however, has come a worry that he lacks any core mission, an impression enhanced by the number of policies Sunak ditched from his summer leadership campaign against Truss. Everything from a £10 charge for missed GP appointments to a pledge that all remaining EU-origin laws would be reviewed within 100 days of his taking office.
Such wholesale policy ditching is not unique in modern UK politics. When standing for Labour leader in 2020, Starmer’s offerings to members included common ownership of public services and a defence of free movement after Brexit.
But Sunak’s position is particularly weakened by the fact he is both the Tories’ third post-2019 election prime minister, and one selected purely by his MPs.
Labour are very aware of Sunak’s vulnerabilities, with Starmer’s Commons attacks the vanguard of wider messaging about the prime minister’s apparent weakness, one the party says is now being echoed back in focus groups.
One Labour source called Sunak a “directionless leader in an incredibly weak position”, at the mercy of an endless sequence of Tory vested interest. This would not end well, they predicted: “If there’s one thing everyone knows about Tory backbenchers it is that once they get the scent of blood, they won’t give up.”
What Conservative voters make of this, particularly those who are tempted to switch allegiance, remains to be seen. But the early signs are perhaps even more gloomy for Sunak.
Outside Westminster, some view the arguments about his weakness or pragmatism as broadly similar to jostling for the best deckchair view on the deck of the Titanic.
One Liberal Democrat MP said many local voters they talked to recently, including former Tories, seemed pleased the psychodrama of the Truss period was over, but felt that Sunak was little more than a steadier hand on the tiller as the party sailed towards the same iceberg.
“The view is that he’s a continuity Tory,” the MP said. “One local Tory member actually emailed to say that for the good of the country the party needs some time in opposition.”