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How history will judge Rishi Sunak, according to experts

Was Rishi Sunak the worst prime minister in history? No. Despite this catastrophic defeat – and his miscalculation in calling the election so prematurely – Sunak is not even the lowest-ranked PM of the last two years, at least in the minds of leading historians.

It was either Sunak’s bad luck or his good fortune to follow those 44 days of Liz Truss, depending which way you look at things.

“Sunak had an impossible task from the beginning,” the political biographer Sir Anthony Seldon tells i. “He was a noble failure who restored order after the chaos of Truss.

“He was thoughtful and sensible, but took over too late in the cycle to make much difference or turn opinion polls around. No prime minister in history has ever come in this late during a period of one-party domination and rescued things.”

For a PM who was always battling to restore trust in his party, the problems ran deep. “He followed two spectacularly disastrous prime ministers,” says David Reynolds, emeritus professor of international history at Cambridge University.

“We had this huge collapse of confidence in Boris Johnson over Partygate and the way he rammed Brexit through regardless of protocols, then Truss lost us £30bn in the blink of an eye.”

Some voters – including in the seat she has now lost – may have been waiting to oust the Tories ever since Truss’s mini-Budget of September 2022, which pushed mortgage rates up and increased the Treasury’s borrowing costs by £30bn, according to one estimation.

Rishi Sunak lost to Liz Truss in the Conservative leadership contest of summer 2022 but took control of the party without any challengers later that year (Photo: Jacob King - WPA Pool / Getty Images)
Sunak lost to Liz Truss in the Tory leadership contest of summer 2022, but took control of the party later that year (Photo: Jacob King/WPA Pool/Getty)

Some will also have harboured deep frustrations from the years of Theresa May and David Cameron. As the fifth prime minister in seven years, “Sunak steadied the ship at an important moment,” Reynolds believes – but that was never going to be enough for the Conservatives.

Suffering from the cumulative weight of Tory scandals, rows and embarrassments over 14 years, “he was dealing with a party that was in meltdown and out of control,” says Reynolds, author of Mirrors of Greatness.

Trying to lead MPs who continually complained about his strategy – and still considered replacing him even after the election was called – was beyond him, the experts believe.

And they say that Sunak certainly can’t be absolved of the Conservatives’ worst election defeat in over a century.

The decision to announce the election by surprise in May appeared misguided from the start. His campaign went on to be littered with gaffes – like his gift to satirists by appearing at Belfast’s Titanic Quarter – and further blushes over his team’s voting date betting scandal.

The historians Prof David Reynolds, Porf Andrew Hindmoor and Sir Anthony Seldon, left to right, offered i assessments of Rishi Sunak
Historians Professor David Reynolds, Professor Andrew Hindmoor and Sir Anthony Seldon, from left, offered itheir assessments of Mr Sunak

“He doesn’t have a natural gift for politics,” according to Seldon. “He’s the opposite of Boris Johnson, who was political to his fingertips but was incompetent and not interested in the detail. Rishi Sunak is extraordinarily methodical and has a great brain for economics but has very little natural political judgement.”

Reynolds agrees. “He started promisingly, but by the end he dug his own grave, and in pretty disastrous circumstances.

“Announcing the election in a rainstorm, with a script that was getting soaking wet and in a suit reputedly worth £2,000 that was getting completely sodden – that was on every front page of every newspaper the next day. You don’t have to be a political genius to say: why didn’t he have an umbrella, or why didn’t he postpone it?

“Then there was his retreat from the D-Day beaches on 6 June – again, completely stupid.”

Rishi Sunak was criticised for leaving his Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, to take part in a photocall with world leaders to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day (Photo: REUTERS / Benoit Tessier)
Sunak was criticised for leaving his Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, to take part in a photocall with world leaders to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day (Photo: Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Many thought the Tories couldn’t sink any lower than the Labour landslide of 1997. But Andrew Hindmoor, professor of politics at Sheffield University, ranks John Major more favourably than Sunak.

“Major emerged from a massive defeat bruised, but without his reputation destroyed,” says Hindmoor, whose new book Haywire charts British political history since 2000. “He remained well respected, and that’s partly because he played a bad hand as well as he could for as long as he could.

“Sunak will be seen as a prime minister with a bad hand who played it badly – and then threw his cards down on the table at the moment when they were weakest.” Criticisms of that decision may become “his epitaph”.

Seldon, author of Johnson at 10 and the forthcoming Truss at 10, disagrees. “Sunak tried to do his best, and did about as well as he could have done under the circumstances,” he contends.

Conservative members are unlikely to be so forgiving, especially for a man they never elected as party leader. After Johnson’s downfall, Sunak came second to Truss in the race to run the Tories in September 2022, by 57.4 to 42.6 per cent. Following her ignominious exit the following month, he was chosen solely by MPs, with nobody challenging him.

His personal ratings among the public had been low for some time before the campaign. “There’s been a growing sense that he’s out of touch,” says Reynolds, the presenter of several BBC documentaries.

“He got respect initially because he seemed to be a decent family man – clearly devoted to his daughters as well as the country – and he was a man of principle, a serious Hindu.

“But the gradual revelations about his wife’s family wealth and non-dom status didn’t help. He seems to go everywhere by helicopter. He doesn’t meet anyone except in very staged arrangements. Is this a leader who really knows what ordinary people are like?”

So what can we admire Sunak for?

In years to come, academics might credit his mature and pragmatic negotiations with the EU on Brexit problems. Sunak’s Windsor Framework eased rules on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which Reynolds believes was “a very clever piece of work secured through sensible, old-fashioned diplomacy” with Brussels chief Ursula von der Leyen.

Rishi Sunak was drenched by rain while announcing that he was calling the general election (Photo: REUTERS / Toby Melville )
The then PM is drenched by rain while announcing he is calling the general election (Photo: Toby Melville/Reuters )

Hindmoor agrees that internationally he restored a sense of seriousness to the UK’s reputation on finances and governance. Unlike his predecessors, he “avoided grandstanding comments”, and worked hard to boost relationships with allies, especially the US.

Perhaps his time as chancellor during the Covid pandemic will be seen as more significant than anything he did as Prime Minister, through the furlough scheme keeping many families afloat and saving people’s jobs.

Then again, he did have nearly two years in No 10, and could have stayed there longer. Even after numerous suspensions, defections and resignations, Sunak’s government still had a significant majority in Parliament – unlike Major’s dwindling power in Parliament.

After leaving office, every recent prime minister has published memoirs promoting their proudest achievements. What could Sunak highlight in a future autobiography?

One of the most “bizarre” aspects of calling this election when he could have waited a few more months is that he “couldn’t get bills through which would have been part of his legacy, like the anti-smoking legislation”, says Reynolds. “The astonishing thing is that they’ve never really used that majority.”

Historians credit Rishi Sunak for reaching a post-Brexit agreement with the EU over Northern Ireland's trade rules (Photo: Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)
Sunak with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Historians credit him with reaching a post-Brexit deal with the EU over Northern Ireland’s trade rules (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty)

Sunak has only just turned 44. He’s vowed to remain an MP for a full term, despite rumours of a move to California – which he has denied – where his family own a $7.2m beachside home. Some speculate that he wants to move his children to the US over the summer in time for the new school year.

If he does fly off towards a Santa Monica sunset, gleeful Labour supporters and the most downcast Tories might wonder: will Sunak be the last Conservative prime minister before the old party splits in two or merges with Reform? That really would give him a place in history like David Lloyd George, the last Liberal PM before his party’s collapse a century ago.

Experts are dubious of such an outcome, however.

“Over the years I’ve heard many people argue that either Labour or the Conservatives will never win again,” says Hindmooor, “but eventually the other side ends up winning. The British two-party system is surprisingly resilient.”

Labour suffered one of the worst election results in its history in 2019, yet it now holds an unprecedented majority. Although it’s very unlikely, Hindmoor thinks it’s not impossible that Sunak’s successor – whoever that turns out to be – could also win in just five years.

“In 1997, it was pretty clear that Tony Blair had won for a minimum of two terms. That’s not at all obvious this time because of voter volatility. Even after the carnage of this landslide, it might not be a 10-year cycle for the Conservatives.”

Overall, he thinks Sunak “will be seen as a footnote”, adding: “He’s lucky to have had Truss before him, because she really provides the benchmark.” In a league table of awful British leaders, “she and a few others keep him out of the relegation places,” he says.

There is one record that nobody can ever take away from Sunak: becoming the nation’s first ethnic-minority prime minister.

“In a country that sometimes struggles being multi-racial, this was our first non-white face as prime minister. That is important,” says Reynolds. “People said the same thing about Barack Obama when he became American president: whatever else happened afterwards, he made his place in history just by doing that.”

Anthony Seldon’s book Truss at 10: How Not to Be a Prime Minister is out on 5 September (£22, Atlantic).

Mirrors of Greatness: Churchill and the Leaders Who Shaped Him, by David Reynolds (£25, William Collins) is on sale now.

Andrew Hindmoor‘s Haywire: A Political History of Britain since 2000 (£35, Penguin) is also out now.

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