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Rishi Sunak’s Dismal Task: Leading U.K. Conservatives to Likely Defeat

A few days before Britain’s Conservative Party suffered a stinging setback in local elections on Thursday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recorded a short video to promote some good news from his government. In the eight-second clip, Mr. Sunak poured milk from a pint bottle into a tall glass, filled with a steaming dark beverage and bearing the scribbled figure of 900 pounds on the side.

“Pay day is coming,” Mr. Sunak posted, referring to the savings that an average wage earner would supposedly reap from a cut in mandatory contributions to Britain’s national insurance system.

The mockery soon started. He’d added too much milk, some said. His numbers didn’t add up, said others. And why, asked one critic, would Mr. Sunak choose a pint bottle as a prop days after the opposition Labour Party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, had skewered him in Parliament as a “pint-size loser?”

However partisan her jab, loser is a label that Mr. Sunak is finding increasingly hard to shake, even among his members of his own party. In the 18 months since he replaced his failed predecessor, Liz Truss, Mr. Sunak, 43, has lost seven special parliamentary elections and back-to-back local elections.

This past week’s local elections, in which the Conservatives lost about 40 percent of the 985 seats they were defending, were merely the latest signpost on what analysts say is a road to thumping defeat in a general election. National polls show the Labour Party leading the Conservatives by more than 20 percentage points, a stubborn gap that the prime minister has been unable to close.

The drumbeat of bad news is casting fresh scrutiny on Mr. Sunak’s leadership and the future of his party, which has been in power for 14 years but faces what could be a long stretch in the political wilderness.

For now, Mr. Sunak appears to have quieted talks that a cabal of Conservative lawmakers would try to oust him before the vote, which is expected in the autumn. The local results, while bad, were not as catastrophic as they could have been, averting a full-fledged panic among his colleagues. Having cycled through three prime ministers since the last election, the Tories are also running out of alternative leaders.

Embattled as he is, Mr. Sunak seems likely to limp to the general election as the standard-bearer of an exhausted, divided party.

“The broader view is that it’s probably better now to let Rishi stay in his post and absorb the defeat, and for successors to position themselves for what happens after Labour wins in a landslide,” said Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist at the University of Kent who has advised the Conservative Party.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and an expert on the Tories, said, “He does look, to be honest, like a dead man walking.”

Defenders of Mr. Sunak say he is a victim of global economic headwinds coming out of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the poisoned legacy he inherited from Ms. Truss, whose sweeping tax cut plan spooked the financial markets and tarnished Britain’s reputation for fiscal probity.

Britain’s persistent inflation, high mortgage rates and a stagnant economy all predated Mr. Sunak. The inflation rate has dropped to 3.2 percent from 11.1 percent when he took office, though credit for that goes principally to the Bank of England.

Mr. Sunak did win praise for steadying the markets and restoring Britain’s credibility after Ms. Truss. But critics said he never followed that up with a convincing strategy to recharge growth. Nor did he fulfill two other promises: to cut waiting times in the National Health Service and to stop the small boats carrying asylum seekers across the English Channel.

“Liz Truss cratered the party’s reputation for economic competence,” Professor Bale said. “But it’s also down to Sunak: He hasn’t got the grip, charisma or authority that someone doing the rescue job required would have needed.”

Part of that, critics said, reflects Mr. Sunak’s political shortcomings. He can be querulous in media interviews, and his attempts to connect with voters are often tin eared. He drew japes after posing in a pair of Adidas Sambas, an athletic shoe favored by celebrities like Rihanna and Harry Styles, while promoting his tax policies. “Sunak took an eternally cool sneaker, and ruined it for everyone,” said British GQ magazine.

Some say that Mr. Sunak, a onetime Goldman Sachs banker whose wife, Akshata Murthy, is the daughter of an Indian technology billionaire, is simply not a relatable figure. Before he was mocked for wearing Sambas, he caught flack for wearing £490 ($616) Prada suede loafers to a construction site.

The Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, has taken aim at Mr. Sunak’s preference for flying across Britain to taking the train. “I’m sure from the vantage point of his helicopter everything might look fine,” Mr. Starmer said in Parliament, “but that’s not the lived experience of those on the ground.”

Mr. Sunak once posed with a “smart mug” for coffee, which retails for £180, on his desk — an image that stuck in the minds of those critiquing his milk-pouring video. “If anyone can afford a £900 cup of tea, it’s the prime minister,” the journalist Robert Hutton wrote on social media.

Others noted that Mr. Sunak’s claim that workers would save £900 in lower national insurance payments was misleading, because the government had frozen income tax thresholds. With inflation-adjusted wages, people are paying higher taxes without taking home extra money.

Mr. Sunak did not spend much time in the political trenches before becoming prime minister. He entered Parliament in 2015 and rose in just five years to be chancellor of the Exchequer under Prime Minister Boris Johnson. After helping precipitate Mr. Johnson’s fall, he was beaten in his first leadership contest by Ms. Truss.

However bumpy his tenure, Mr. Sunak insists that his government has made headway on the economy, immigration and defense, with a pledge to increase Britain’s military spending to 2.5 percent of economic output by 2030.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday, Mr. Sunak drew a sharp distinction between the Tories and Labour. Voters, he said, would have a choice between “a plan versus no plan, bold principled action versus U-turns and prevarication, a clear record of delivery versus political game playing.”

Nowhere has Mr. Sunak invested more political capital than on immigration. He won passage of a divisive law that would put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda, and now vows to put planes in the air by July, before the election.

The Rwanda policy, which involves permanently deporting asylum seekers without hearing their claims for asylum, is anathema to rights activists, constitutional lawyers and the courts. But it is popular with rank-and-file Conservatives — calculated to win over the same voters in the Midlands and Northern England who turned against the Tories in the local elections.

Traditionally, these areas had been Labour strongholds, earning the nickname “red wall” after the party’s campaign color. But they swung to the Tories in 2019 because of Mr. Johnson’s promise to “Get Brexit Done.” Now, the coalition he cobbled together appears to be fracturing; the red wall is swinging back to Labour.

Consider Blackpool South, a seaside district in the north, where Labour won a Tory-held seat in a special election on Thursday. In 2016, the wider Blackpool region had voted in favor of Brexit by 67.5 percent.

Professor Goodwin faulted the Conservatives for not moving more aggressively to cut immigration. These results, he said, “underline just how much they’ve lost touch with the post-Brexit political realignment.”

To other analysts, however, Mr. Sunak’s struggles are evidence that this realignment was always something of a mirage. In the Conservative Party’s heartland in the south — known as the “blue wall” — voters want low taxes and stable government. Some are turned off by the anti-immigrant tone of the Rwanda policy.

These more free-market, socially liberal priorities are often at odds with what many voters in the Midlands and the North want. And that has confronted Mr. Sunak with a dilemma, the political equivalent of squaring the circle.

“He’s being asked to pursue two different strategies at the same time,” said Robert Hayward, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and polling expert. “Dealing with the blue wall on one side and the red wall on the other. And it’s not easy to identify a common strategy that will tackle both of them.”

Stephen Castle contributed reporting.

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