British voters like the new leader, Sunak, but not his party

LONDONRishi Sunak has been British Prime Minister for a month. In the turbulent world of British politics in 2022, that’s an achievement.

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

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

PARTIAL POPULARITY

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

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

“This is definitely better than Boris Johnson earlier this year,” said Gideon Skinner, head of policy research at Ipsos. But he said Sunak’s popularity “shows no sign of rubbing off on the Conservative Party’s brand”.

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 believed to be accurate to plus or minus four percentage points.

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

Persistent allegations of misconduct also damage the image. On Wednesday, Sunak appointed a senior lawyer to investigate allegations of bullying against his Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab.

It is not impossible for the Conservatives to rebuild their popularity before the next election in late 2024. But it won’t be easy. Recent polls suggest Labor would win easily.

SICK ECONOMY

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Sunak, then Britain’s chief financial officer, gained popularity by spending billions to support closed businesses and pay furloughed workers’ salaries.

Now he must deliver bitter medicine. The UK economy is being weighed down by the pandemic, Brexit and particularly Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has pushed up global energy prices.

Millions of people in the UK have seen energy bills skyrocket despite a government-imposed cap preventing even higher prices. Pandemic-related backlogs and staff shortages have resulted in record wait times for healthcare in Britain’s National Health Service.

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

“I am fully aware of how difficult things are,” Sunak said in his first address to the nation on Oct. 25, warning of “difficult decisions to come.”

An emergency budget last week helped buoy the pound and calm markets – at the cost of £25 billion ($30 billion) in tax hikes and the prospect of future public 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 prospects among the Group of Seven’s developed economies.

WAR IN EUROPE

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

Britain has given Ukraine £2.3 billion ($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 keep Kyiv closed help.

Sunak traveled to Kyiv last week to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky that British policy would not change under his leadership. “I’m proud of how Britain has stood by you from the start,” Sunak told Zelenskyy. “And I’m here today to say that the UK will continue to stand by Ukraine.”

London continues its support and announced last week that it will supply Ukraine with anti-aircraft guns, anti-drone technology and three Sea King helicopters.

But while support for Ukraine is secure, defense spending could be tight. Sunak has dropped a pledge by Truss to increase defense spending to 3% of gross domestic product by 2030.

BREXIT HEADACHES

Britain’s relations with its closest neighbors and largest trading partners have been strained since it left the European Union, which is now 27 nations, in 2020. Johnson and Truss both appeared to take pleasure in angering the bloc in a bid to placate the Conservative Party’s powerful Eurosceptic wing.

Sunak has been more lenient and has sent heartfelt calls to European leaders in the days after he took office. Concrete change is harder to achieve given the power that ardent Brexiteers hold within the Conservatives.

The UK’s exit from the EU in 2020 brought customs controls and other obstacles to companies trading with the bloc a political crisis in Northern Ireland and ended the free flow of EU citizens to Britain to fill vacancies.

The UK could reduce trade tensions if it agrees to align with EU rules on some areas, such as veterinary or food standards. But after reports that the government is seeking closer ties angered Eurosceptics, Sunak said this week he would not accept “alignment with EU laws”.

David Henig, trade expert at the European Center for International Political Economy, said the backlash “has revealed how pervasive the Europe issue 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 clearly doesn’t at the moment”.

“I think the problem is that he doesn’t have any great fresh ideas on how this works and a lot of internal resistance,” Henig said. ___

Follow all of AP’s coverage of British politics at https://apnews.com/hub/british-politics

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https://www.local10.com/news/world/2022/11/25/uk-voters-warm-to-new-leader-sunak-but-not-to-his-party/ British voters like the new leader, Sunak, but not his party

Sarah Y. Kim

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