The Independent

Sunak is setting the agenda... but will he attract the voters?


Rishi Sunak has set the news agenda for three weeks now. He renegotiat­ed the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol in a way that everyone said was impossible. He restored relations with France and announced a policy on small boats that a lot of people don’t like

but that makes it look as if he is trying. And he has just returned from a day trip to San Diego to pose in the California sunshine with Joe Biden.

Tony Blair said disobligin­gly the UK prime minister wasn’t as important in the world as in his day. “Would Joe Biden pick up the phone to Rishi Sunak first? I’m not sure.” But Sunak has done a pretty good impersonat­ion of Blair since he started the year with the announceme­nt of five promises that was a deliberate echo of the New Labour pledge card of 1997.

It is worth reminding ourselves what good government looks like because we haven’t had it for so long. The build-up to the announceme­nt of the Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland was accompanie­d by a wall of noise from the press box, of catcalls and derision: it has been negotiated for weeks; get on with it; it won’t be any good.

But when it was announced, it came as a surprise, not least that the EU had done the one thing it said it would never do, namely reopen the treaties. It hasn’t worked yet, but it has a better chance than anyone thought possible, and Steve Baker, the Northern Ireland minister, is still on board. As a result, a visit by President Biden is locked in to mark the 25th anniversar­y of the Good Friday Agreement next month.

The small boats policy was less of an unexpected triumph, being essentiall­y an intensific­ation of what went before. And the row over the backlash from Gary Lineker has probably been unhelpful to the government, which is why Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary, tabled an urgent question on the subject in the Commons yesterday. But the policy itself is supported by the public, and the voters have no confidence that a Labour government would do any better.

Meanwhile, the rapprochem­ent with Macron over small boats, and with the EU generally over Northern Ireland, is a more constructi­ve posture for the UK government than was possible under Sunak’s immediate predecesso­rs. Sunak’s visits to Paris and San Diego have visibly contradict­ed the fear that Britain would be isolated outside the EU.

Even the “refresh” of the integrated review of defence and security policy, which was published 13 March, has been praised by the experts, such as Professor Lawrence Freedman, for being a sensible compromise between competing objectives within limited resources.

With the exception of the Lineker row, which was nothing to do with the Labour Party to start with, the prime minister’s media operation has smothered the opposition. Keir Starmer hasn’t led the headlines for a long time for anything except the news of his attempt to appoint Sue Gray as his chief of staff, which is not the kind of thing that shifts a lot of votes.

Something else is going on behind the scenes. The prime minister is “loved rather than loathed by civil servants”, reported Paul Waugh of the newspaper. Whereas Boris Johnson enjoyed public confrontat­ion but shied away from difficult conversati­ons in private, Sunak seems to be the opposite: he has a mild public manner but is a tough negotiator with a firm grasp of detail. “It’s not hard to see which approach gets more results,” as Waugh commented.

None of this has made any difference to the opinion polls. The voters still blame the Conservati­ve Party for the cost of living and the state of the NHS. But when inflation comes down and

Most voters have barely noticed that they have a competent government again

people start to feel better off, and if people start to feel that the NHS is on the mend, attitudes may change.

Most voters have barely noticed that they have a competent government again, but such basic effectiven­ess is a necessary if not sufficient condition of a recovery in Sunak’s fortunes. If the terms of political trade change this year, we may look back at the last few weeks as the moment when that became possible.

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 ?? (PA) ?? The prime minister is reminding us what good government looks like
(PA) The prime minister is reminding us what good government looks like

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