As he flew to Washington earlier this week, Rishi Sunak was uncharacteristically tense and tetchy – a malaise deepened by bad turbulence as the plane neared the US capital.
By the time of the return journey on Thursday night, the Prime Minister was a man transformed – padding around the private jet in his socks and a Soulcycle jumper, chatting and joking with colleagues and journalists while clutching a No 10-branded mug. It was clear he thought his meeting with Joe Biden was a success.
The two leaders met for what was meant to be a quick private chat before the formal meeting – during which they would be joined by senior aides and officials – but ended up speaking for some time.
“They were only supposed to have a brief moment alone together but were talking for more than 40 minutes,” a Downing Street source said. “They did the same in San Diego and Northern Ireland when they met there – they just genuinely get on really well.”
It is a far cry from when Mr Biden could not pronounce the Prime Minister’s name, calling him “Rashid Sanook” when he first came to power.
Growing warmth in Washington
There was a sense in Washington that Rishi Sunak and Joe Biden – decades apart in age – were a physical representation of the new-look “special relationship”, marrying traditional diplomacy with modern innovation. Sources said Mr Sunak admired the decades of experience the President has, particularly when it comes to his understanding of longstanding foreign premiers such as Xi Jinping, the leader of China.
In a sign of the growing warmth between the two, Mr Sunak was hosted in Blair House, the President’s official guesthouse. The building is more stately home than hotel, with a room that once was Lincoln’s office, a resident chef and White House branded sweets and chocolate laid out in the guests’ rooms each night – a boon for Mr Sunak, who has a notorious sweet tooth.
The two leaders also exchanged gifts. Mr Sunak gave the President a customised Barbour jacket and book on naval discipline which was written by Mr Biden’s British great-great-grandfather. The President gave Mr Sunak a cricket set, presented to the PM in a large gold gift box.
The Prime Minister’s trip was highly choreographed – even down to the baseball jacket Mr Sunak wore to a game at the Washington Nationals stadium. “You wouldn’t believe the conversations about the PM’s jacket,” one No 10 source said, explaining that several size options had to be bought beforehand to ensure the fit looked correct. “I think it was a child’s size six or something,” they joked. Another insider said there were intense deliberations about whether the PM would also don a red hat, or even branded socks.
At the baseball game, Mr Sunak spent time with former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Nancy Pelosi, the senior Democrat who was until recently Speaker of the House of Representatives – but shunned Donald Trump, claiming he did not have time to meet the ex-President.
Back at home, things were less harmonious, even before Boris Johnson and his ally Nadine Dorries stood down as MPs, leaving Mr Sunak with a double by-election headache. When he was PM, Mr Johnson had a habit of suffering massive domestic bust-ups whenever he went abroad; Mr Sunak has avoided this, but partly by putting the Government into go-slow mode during his trips.
On Thursday, as the Prime Minister was preparing to meet Mr Biden, the Commons wrapped up its business at 3.40pm. On Tuesday, it had concluded by 2.20pm – nearly five hours earlier than normal. Next week, more than half of parliamentary time will be devoted to debates on non-binding motions, even as more than two dozen pieces of legislation promised at the last Queen’s Speech have yet to become law.
“They can’t actually do anything because that would expose the fact that they can’t actually agree on anything,” a leading Opposition MP told i. “Also they don’t like taking the spotlight away from Sunak when he’s away and risking a fight at home.”
Some Conservatives agree. One backbencher said: “Parliament’s dead isn’t it? I don’t think that’s competency, they’re just leaving space open for Labour to vacuum up policy ideas. I’m just not excited by anything we’re doing at the moment.
“He’s yet again off to America, it’s the third PMQs he’s now missed in what, eight weeks? He’s constantly going abroad. We’re not going to win by him being seen as some great statesman on foreign policy, that’s not going to win the next election. I’m really glad the PM’s going to collect some photos for his personal photo album.”
A former minister added: “He isn’t spending too much time overseas – but his Government should function well enough without him. The whips’ operation needs to get a grip of business.”
Mr Sunak has been continually haunted by Boris Johnson, with rows over “Partygate”, honours, the Covid inquiry, and last night his resignation, all sucking up political and media oxygen. One ally of the former Prime Minister warned that the current incumbent can never win over “Red Wall” voters in the same way as his predecessor, saying: “When people in 2019 voted it was the two Bs, it was Brexit and Boris… and it may be unfair because a lot of Rishi’s true beliefs may be aligned with the red wall, but those voters lent their trust to the Conservatives, Rishi can’t carry that message for them.
“There is unfairness in this and politics is quite irrational, he can say all the right things on the security he provided during Covid and that’s why he’s trustworthy on the economy, really talking tough on immigration, but the red wall are not buying it. There’s no way back for that part of the world.”
Others are still willing to defend Mr Sunak, whose first engagement after his return from Washington was a star turn at the Northern Research Group conference in Doncaster. Tory grandee Sir Robert Goodwill said: “The fact we are having a conference in the North showed levelling up is very much still on the Government’s agenda.”
But he urged the Prime Minister to put warm words into action, for example by intervening to the Britishvolt car battery factory in Blyth through Government subsidies to forge a post-Brexit industrial comeback. Another senior MP insisted Mr Sunak’s relatively high personal ratings – with the leader outpolling his own party – could help in a general election.
“When people look at who they want to be prime minister, the answer doesn’t seem to be Keir Starmer,” the former minister said. “It remains to be seen whether voters continue blaming us for the Kwasi Kwarteng budget, for the whole shitshower that happened last September, but this feels much more like 1992 with a competent John Major against a rather unpopular Neil Kinnock than 1997 when no one was in any doubt Tony Blair was as popular as anything and the Conservatives were ready for a rest in opposition.
“From a position of who is a competent prime minister, Rishi ticks every box. Since Margaret Thatcher we haven’t had a prime minister quite so focused on the detail of departmental briefs.”
In the coming weeks, the grumbling was already set to break out into a pincer movement of policy challenges, taking on Mr Sunak from his right and his left. The Conservative Growth Group, founded by allies of Liz Truss, is ramping up its operations with a series of policy papers. A source close to the group said its leaders were seeking to re-establish the reputation of free-market economics within the Conservative party, after it was tarnished through association with Ms Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng.
On the other wings of the party, the “one nation” group is launching a push to ensure that Mr Sunak’s dedication to fiscal discipline does not stop him from committing to “levelling up” at the same time. A book edited by Sir Robert Buckland will be published later this month, packed with ideas for the Tories’ next manifesto.
Crucially, the book is endorsed by Mr Johnson, whose fan base mostly comes from the right but who is keen to build bridges with other Tory factions as he considers his own future. In a message to his successor, he said: “Levelling up is what this Government was elected to do. Let’s get on and do it.”
It was pointed, but mild compared to the war cry issued by Mr Johnson in the lengthy statement that followed his decision to step down as an MP last night, after accusing a Parliamentary investigation into Partygate of trying to “drive me out”.
“Just a few years after winning the biggest majority in almost half a century, that majority is now clearly at risk,” Mr Johnson wrote.
“Our party needs urgently to recapture its sense of momentum and its belief in what this country can do.
“We need to show how we are making the most of Brexit and we need in the next months to be setting out a pro-growth and pro-investment agenda. We need to cut business and personal taxes – and not just as pre-election gimmicks – rather than endlessly putting them up.
“We must not be afraid to be a properly Conservative government.
“Why have we so passively abandoned the prospect of a Free Trade Deal with the US? Why have we junked measures to help people into housing or to scrap EU directives or to promote animal welfare?
“We need to deliver on the 2019 manifesto.”
Mr Sunak had barely had a day to enjoy his Washington success before his predecessor, wounded and angry, was once again back centre stage.