July 13, 2024

(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak came to power almost a year ago promising to bring a business-like sensibility to UK politics, an antidote to Liz Truss’s failed 49-day experiment in radical fiscal change.

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Five pledges on the economy and public services were meant to help voters track his progress, and underscore a sense of method and forward-planning. And the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker has been credited with restoring a feeling of stability in Westminster.

Problem is, the results of what Sunak calls his pragmatic solutions have been mixed. Health service waiting lists, for instance, are higher than ever. And a year on from the disastrous budget that ultimately brought down Truss, Sunak and his Conservatives are still lagging far behind Labour in the polls.

The solution? Sensible populism. That’s according to a Sunak ally, who spoke privately to describe the prime minister’s new strategy, which got its first formal airing this week.

Britons are due to go to the polls before January 2025, and Sunak’s shift into election mode has been in the works for months, waiting for the economy to start to improve, people familiar with his thinking said. This week, inflation undershot expectations and the Bank of England hit pause on almost two years of rate increases, although largely because the risk of a recession is growing.

Over the coming weeks, Sunak is expected to announce major policy shifts on housing, infrastructure, immigration and industrial policy, the people said. Sunak saw his five pledges as the water-treading first phase of his premiership, and the next is to take the fight to Labour leader Keir Starmer and erode the opposition party’s 20-point lead in national opinion polls.

But Sunak’s first big effort to reset the narrative was marked by chaos, when his plan to water down the government’s green agenda was leaked to the BBC. It triggered frantic efforts by Downing Street to fend off criticism from business and some Tory MPs, before Sunak finally gave a televised speech confirming the move.

Sunak framed his decision to push back a ban on new petrol and diesel cars as part of his new approach to tackling climate change that would put a “fairer and more proportionate” burden on Britons, while bringing the UK into line with other countries including the EU. But it also included language common to the climate-skeptic political right. It was a clear dividing line with Labour.

One ally described Sunak’s outlook as a combination of optimism and ambition for the future economy, couched in fiscal prudence and a deep vein of social conservatism. A second person, the one who coined the sensible populist framing, called it a common-sense approach to universal issues, but which particularly excite a typically Conservative voter. One supporter of the prime minister said it could help the Conservatives deprive Labour of a parliamentary majority.

A Tory lawmaker took a less flattering view, characterizing Sunak as a Treasury bean-counter with a right-wing streak, the implication being that his approach is at odds with voters demanding an improvement in public services.

People close to Sunak said he’s cut a frustrated figure for much of the last year, as well as when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer under Boris Johnson. In part, they say that’s because of his irritation at how politics in Britain works — a common gripe of politicians who find events not going their way.

During his time in banking, Sunak used to be glued to the amber-on-black text of financial news reports, but now hates the vicissitudes of 24-hour news and social media, they said. Since becoming prime minister, he’s tried to tune out of daily market movements and newspaper headlines.

It’s also because he’s felt unable to implement his own political philosophy. Pundits have struggled to define Sunak’s views, as the premier at times appears in tune with liberals in the US and Europe at international summits, and at others risks his reputation by stoking culture wars at home.

The new policy announcements have been chosen because Sunak has a genuine interest in reform, the people said, but also they’re expected to pose problems for Labour. Cost-savings, if unmatched by the opposition, would put pressure on the opposition to show where they will find the money. Promoting socially-conservative positions on cultural issues could cause problems for Starmer, whose political base is more liberal.

The premier is seriously considering scaling back the flagship High Speed 2 rail project, which has long been seen as a white elephant by the Tory right, people familiar with his thinking said. It comes even as his two predecessors have warned against abandoning the program, with Boris Johnson telling The Times it was a “desperate” move that would damage links to northern cities just before the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.

Sunak is also mulling reducing an increase in welfare payments, and tweaks to the state pension. Saturday’s newspapers were full of policy ideas including proposals to boost the takeup of individual savings accounts by allowing them to be used to support UK-listed companies. The Guardian reported plans for tough anti-smoking measures, similar to those introduced in New Zealand.

He’s considering changing the tax regime to boost innovation, and will likely try to frame a focus on life sciences, advanced manufacturing and digital technology as a benefit of diverging from European Union rules after Brexit. He is expected to call for more homes to be built, while trying to present Labour’s plans as a threat to green spaces.

Sunak also believes he will win a court case allowing him to deport migrants to Rwanda by the end of the year, creating another division with Labour.

He delivered his climate speech at a lectern adorned with his new slogan: “Long-term decisions for a brighter future.”

It could be a tough sell. Sunak’s attempt to frame him his plans as a reset, or a fresh start or new trajectory, runs up against his record as Johnson’s finance minister. His Conservatives have been in power for over 13 years. A poll of 2,144 adults taken after his climate speech by YouGov found his approval rating had slumped to the lowest since he became prime minister.

A major issue is likely to be that scaling back projects could be inconsistent with voters’ idea of a brighter future, especially as polling consistently shows dissatisfaction with the decline in public services and infrastructure. He faced widespread criticism of his green U-turn, amid accusations that far from saving money, it would raise costs — albeit to be faced by a later administration.

Yet his immediate challenge could be closer to home, potentially manifesting as his Conservatives gather for their annual conference in Manchester from Oct. 1. One Tory lawmaker complained the reset is aimed too much at the party’s base, and would only serve to mitigate defeat.

Another said the country would vote on the economy, public services like the National Health Service, crime and borders, urging him to make game-changing announcements such as a Royal Commission on the future of the NHS. Given the state of the polls, Sunak’s critics — including Truss — are likely to dominate the agenda by demanding much more, they predicted.

(Updates with details on Johnson’s opposition to HS2 plans in fifteenth paragraph.)

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