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Is Rishi Sunak Too Tetchy to Win an Election?

Tories voiced concern after British PM ‘throws toys out of the pram’ during Parthenon Sculptures row.

LONDON — Rishi Sunak has taken offense again. His troops are getting worried.

With a U.K. general election looming next year, some Tory MPs and strategists fear the British prime minister might not have the temperament to charm the electorate.

Sunak’s decision Monday to abruptly cancel a meeting with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, angrily claiming the Greek prime minister reneged on assurances he would not speak publicly about the disputed Parthenon Sculptures during his three-day U.K. visit, has reignited Tory fears about a petulant streak which surfaces in the heat of political battle.

It’s almost unheard of for a British prime minister to cancel a meeting with a European ally who has specifically traveled to see them in No. 10 Downing Street, and Sunak’s decision has caused outrage in Greece. A government spokesman in Athens called the decision “unprecedented” and “disrespectful.”

Plenty of Tory party figures agree.

“It’s just strikes me as very odd to kind of throw your toys out of the pram because somebody has behaved badly,” Tory peer and former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said. “You should rise above it.”

“The U.K./Greek relationship is very important,” added Tory MP and Commons culture committee Chair Caroline Dineage. “It feels like a bit of a diplomatic fail to me.”

In private, others are even more scathing.

“He comes across as snippy, and comes across as thin-skinned — which he is, when people challenge him,” said one former minister who has worked closely with Sunak. (Like others quoted in this article, they were granted anonymity to speak frankly about what they see as the prime minister’s flaws.)

Sunak’s allies have leaped to this defense, insisting he is a straight-talker and an effective operator on the world stage. Former Foreign Secretary — and Sunak mentor — William Hague insisted his protégé “is not the sort of person to just get in a strop,” describing the PM as a “very patient, broad-minded person.”

Riled by the press

The Greek row is far from the first time the British prime minister’s manner has raised eyebrows among colleagues, however.

Viewers were left deeply unimpressed during the July 2022 Tory leadership contest when Sunak barely let his opponent Liz Truss get a word in during a crucial TV debate in which he harangued her over the detail of her tax-cutting proposals. His manner turned off voters and was seen as a crucial moment in cementing Truss’ lead.

Sunak has often seemed tetchy with journalists, too. He was clearly riled during an interview with Sky’s Beth Rigby on a G7 trip in which he was asked about local election defeats back home; and flounced out of an interview with a Scottish journalist when challenged on his infamous use of short-haul helicopters.  

And on a different overseas trip he grew testy when the press pack seemed unconvinced by his claims Britain was “smashing it” on the global stage; and then again when asked about his private swimming pool during the traditional question and answer “media huddle” on the plane.

“I think a lot of policy-minded people like him feel — why can’t the media just write about the substance?” noted one former aide, warning such a view was “pretty naive” for a senior politician.

John McTernan, a political strategist who advised Tony Blair in Downing Street, added: “You’ve got to have a genial kind of personality if you’re the prime minister. You’ve got all the power and people have the right to ask you questions. That’s the way it goes.”

One Conservative MP — no arch-loyalist — was quick to defend Sunak, however, saying the premier had “a right to get narky with stupid questions, and many voters would feel the same.”

But focus groups tell a different story.

“Whereas when he was chancellor the public found Rishi Sunak authoritative and reassuring, they now tend to find him lecturing and sometimes snappy,” said Luke Tryl, director of the consultancy More in Common, which regularly conducts focus groups on political topics around the U.K.

“The warning signs of this shift in impressions of Sunak have been clear since last year’s leadership debates, when the public found Sunak’s attitude to Liz Truss to be rude and condescending — even when they agreed with what he was saying.

“Given that he already struggles on questions of empathy, the PM is at risk of developing a tone problem with the public and needs to switch back to ‘safe pair of hands; rather than know-it-all,” he added.

Downing Street aides are quick to rally to the PM’s defense.

“Anyone who knows him knows that this is not true,” shot back one No. 10 official. “He showed huge resilience last summer and stuck to his guns on what he believed was right thing for the country. That’s leadership.”

But with a grueling six-week general election campaign looming in 2024, some Tory colleagues and strategists are growing worried. 

“Six weeks is tiring, and what showed [during the 2022 Tory campaign] was the difference between somebody who saps energy from the audience, rather than to the audience. Rishi gets really grumpy and snappy,” one former Cabinet minister said. 

With Labour leading in the polls, the first former minister quoted above added, the stakes for Sunak could not be higher.

“As chancellor you can get away with it,” they said. “As prime minister, you can’t.”  

Source: Politico