UK Politics Odds: Don't bet on Rishi Sunak's popularity lasting

  • Max Liu
  • 5:00 min read
Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak has had a whirlwind year as chancellor

Rishi Sunak's popularity has largely held up for the past year but Max Liu thinks the odds on the chancellor become next Tory leader are too short...

“Leaders have good weeks and bad weeks,” said Ed Miliband to Andrew Marr. As Miliband knows, if bad weeks become a habit for a Labour leader, the Tories can quickly become a good bet to win a majority against the odds."

One year after he became chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak is the favourite to succeed Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative party and prime minister - a position he's occupied for almost all of his 12 months in number 11 Downing Street.

But how long will the public continue to perceive Sunak positively? Does he really warrant odds of 3.3512/5 on the Exchange - with no other candidate shorter than around 8/1 - to be his party's next leader?

Sunak appeared to come from nowhere to take the second biggest job in UK politics in February 2020 after Savid Javid resigned citing interference in his treasury from number ten adviser Dominic Cummings.

When he moved into number 11, Sunak was perceived as a puppet chancellor who would do as Cummings instructed. But Sunak quickly established himself as his own man and impressed the public with his confident delivery of his first budget at the start of the pandemic last March.

Sunak's star rose as government's popularity fell

After Britain went into lockdown, Sunak was praised for measures he introduced to support businesses and employees, including the furlough scheme, even though plenty of self-employed people were left out.

In contrast to Johnson, who looked shambling and indecisive, Sunak came across as a politician with a plan to address unprecedented challenges and, importantly when the public needed assuring that those in charge knew what they were doing, a clear communicator. He became favourite to succeed Johnson and has been ahead in the betting ever since.

During the spring and summer the percentage of those polled who said he was doing a good job was above 50%. At the same time, the government's popularity and that of the PM was plummeting, and Cummings was losing his grip on the government.

Dom Cummings - 1280.jpg

It wasn't until the autumn that the percentage of people who thought Sunak was doing a bad job passed the 20% mark. Last month, 44% said he was doing a good job, 19% disapproved of his performance and 37% weren't sure. The last chancellor who was as popular as Sunak has been in the past year was Gordon Brown and he went on to become PM by coronation.

The odds on Johnson leading the Tory party until 2024 - the year when the next general election is odds-on to take place - or later have shortened to 1.794/5, when they had pushed up towards evens not so long ago.

But three weeks, let alone three years is a long time in British politics right now, and a 2021 exit for the PM shouldn't be ruled out at 5.04/1.

Dishing up a second wave

Sunak sounds reasonable, at a time when the vogue for senior Tories has been to sound hard-headed, and he's young(ish). As was pointed out this week, though, he has consistently pushed for lockdown restrictions to be eased and his Eat Out to Help Out scheme in the summer has been cited as a significant factor in Britain's second wave of Covid-19.

It's too early to say whether such charges will stick and scupper Sunak's chances of becoming leader but, at the current odds, he's too short. If there were a leadership election this year he'd be a serious contender but the longer Johnson stays on the less appealing a successor Sunak is likely to become.

Who else is there? Michael Gove 10.519/2 is a survivor, having served under every Tory PM since 2010, but he is under fire over Brexit this weekend and will be tarnished the more the sovereignty dream sours.

I'd be inclined to look at the real outsiders, Conservative politicians as diverse as Kwasi Kwarteng 46.045/1 and Ruth Davidson 110.00109/1, who communicate as confidently as Sunak and won't be as vulnerable to criticism as the chancellor if and when the post-pandemic recriminations begin.


Jeremy Hunt 9.28/1 has become Sunak's nearest rival for the leadership and, having come second to Johnson in 2019, still harbours ambitions. He's rebranding himself on the back benches, letting his hair grow floppy, retweeting critics of the government.

Hunt is arguably providing more effective opposition to the government than Labour leader Keir Starmer.

Starmer was criticised within and without his party this week, over his plans to make Labour patriotic again, and it fell to one of his predecessors to defend him on Sunday morning.

"Leaders have good weeks and bad weeks," said Ed Miliband to Andrew Marr.

Miliband knows that, if bad weeks become a habit for a leader of the opposition, the Tories can quickly become a good bet to win a majority against the odds.

UK - Party Leaders: UK - Party Leaders (Next Conservative Leader.)

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Wednesday 14 December, 5.00pm

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