A guilty man. (Leon Neal/Getty)


October 25, 2023   5 mins

When Rishi Sunak took over as Prime Minister, he bore a degree of goodwill. The mess he inherited a year ago today was hardly his fault; surely he couldn’t make matters worse. Besides, Sunak represented competence. 

He had, after all, warned the Conservative Party that Liz Truss would cause an economic crisis. Which she duly did. He also had credit in the bank from his time as Chancellor, having found the money to keep everyone in work during the pandemic — with enough to buy us a cheap meal to boot. So when he stepped up after those years of chaos, there was a feeling of relief, at least among the governing caste of Britain: the class swot was now in charge. The rows with Europe were quickly put to bed. A deal was reached over Northern Ireland. Pledges were made. The boats would be stopped. 

But, then, the penny dropped. He was just as useless as the rest of them.

His polling today is brutal. Before he took over, the public was almost evenly split over whether he’d be a good prime minister or not. A year later, barely 11% agree — compared with the 50% who think he has been poor or, even, “terrible”. Sunak’s reputation for competence is in ruins as well. Very few people trust him on anything, whether that’s immigration, housing, the NHS, or even the economy. The Tory party’s troubles are deep, of course; they have not recovered since “Partygate”. And yet, they were only 10 points behind when Johnson resigned. After this plummeted to an extraordinary 25 points under Truss, it has miserably stabilised at between 15 and 20 points under Sunak. 

Why? Is he just not very good at politics? It’s certainly true that going to Manchester to cancel a train line to Manchester doesn’t suggest a particular proficiency in the fine art of winning people over. Is it that he inherited such a colossal economic mess that popularity is all but impossible? There is also an element of truth to that. But there is something more fundamental at play. This isn’t just Rishi Sunak’s fault. He is only the last leader of Britain’s worst-ever run of governments. We have never been as badly governed as we have over the the past 13 years.

This isn’t hyperbole; it’s cold evaluation. Whichever way you measure it, whether in terms of meeting its stated objectives or simply the outcomes for ordinary people, there has never been a period of party rule when so little was achieved. Ever.

Living standards have never before grown so weakly over such a sustained period of time. Debt has ballooned: up from around 65% of GDP in 2010 to 100% today. The deficit remains. The basic structure of the UK economy remains as broken as ever: dependent on the City and foreign direct investment to offset the fact that we continue to import far more than we export. Net migration has jumped from 300,000 to 600,000 to help keep our demographic Ponzi scheme from collapsing, while the care system has never been fixed. The proportion of people owning their own home has fallen; the proportion of your pay packet you must give away on rent has risen; taxes have risen to their highest on record.

And yet, despite all that money pouring into the Treasury, services are stalling. NHS waiting times have risen across the board — a trend that started long before the pandemic. The target to be admitted, seen and discharged from A&E within four hours has not been met since 2014. Every single cancer waiting time is now being missed. The number of people waiting for medical treatment overall has risen from 2.6 million in 2010, to 7.75 million today. The police force, meanwhile, has dwindled, our army is smaller and the number of prison places available for violent criminals all but gone. The courts are in a mess. And the state of the Union has been permanently fractured: EU law applies in one part of the country but not another; a trade border is etched down the Irish Sea; power sharing in Belfast has collapsed, perhaps forever.

Has nothing improved since 2010? Well, crime has apparently continued to fall. Though that is a trend that has been in place since the Nineties. And Britain’s CO2 emissions are also declining; this, too, is part of a much longer trend. Cancer survival rates have improved, even though waiting times have risen (thanks, one suspects, to better drugs). Counterintuitively, inequality has fallen. Oh, and the Elizabeth Line has been built. Gay marriage is perhaps the one concrete achievement that is most mentioned when I cast around for lasting achievements of this period of Tory rule. But does anyone seriously think that wouldn’t have happened sooner or later? 

None of these factors changes the overall reality: things outside this Government’s control which were improving anyway have continued to improve; things which are within its grasp have got materially worse. 

We could, quite reasonably, trace the origins of our current parlous moment back to the great financial crisis of 2008, rather than David Cameron’s arrival in 2010. Certainly, 2008 either made Britain permanently poorer or revealed that we were never as rich as we imagined. However, Cameron’s entire promise in 2010 was that decline was not inevitable. “Our economy is overwhelmed by debt, our social fabric is frayed and our political system has betrayed the people,” Cameron declared in the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto. “But these problems can be overcome if we pull together and work together. If we remember that we are all in this together.” How emptily that now echoes.

Electing the Tories would “ensure macroeconomic stability”, he also claimed. This meant safeguarding Britain’s credit rating, eliminating the structural deficit in a single parliament, and keeping interest rates lower for longer. Let’s just say that didn’t work out very well. 

Other promises were made — and broken. “We will make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe,” the manifesto declares. In 2022 we became the country with the most expensive childcare in the developed world but where every incentive created by the Government makes it harder for parents to look after their own children. Cameron even promised to “support and improve Sure Start” only for more than 1,400 to close since 2019. 

Going through the failures in the manifesto is like shooting fish in a barrel. The pledge to “deliver more affordable homes” and create “a property-owning democracy”; the promise to “extend early deportation of foreign national prisoners”; the complaint about criminals being released early from prison because “there aren’t enough places”; the idea that the Tories would or could “curtail the quango state”. How ludicrous it all now seems. The Climate Change Committee alone is one of the most influential quangos ever created, advising the Government on how to reach net zero by 2050 — the most revolutionary economic policy in decades.

Does Cameron feel shame? Embarrassment? Or does he just shrug and comfort himself with the thought that it was all going to plan until 2016? Perhaps, he’s right. Perhaps it is reasonable to differentiate between the era before the referendum and the era after. Brexit certainly left constitutional scars that will probably never be healed — the Northern Ireland protocol, for example. It also led to the chaos of competing mandates — popular and parliamentary — which took years to resolve. And it may well have exacerbated some of Britain’s other challenges. But, it can’t be blamed for Britain’s structural problems: its productivity slump, its regional divide, its surging NHS waiting lists. These are part of a continuous 13-year story.

No wonder Sunak is trying to present himself as the “change candidate”. He’s just doing what every leader of every badly led Conservative government has done for the past 13 years. Theresa May promised to make government work for ordinary people; Johnson promised to bring an end to austerity and Get Brexit Done; Liz Truss promised to re-inject growth; Sunak promised stability. Each said they could fix their predecessor’s failure. Yet each only worked to confirm the overall failure of the Tory project. 

In 2010, Cameron promised to lift the mood which he claimed had gripped the country. “There is no law that says we must accept decline,” he declared. “We have the energy, the ideas and the ambition to get Britain back on track.” It turns out he had the wrong energy, ideas and ambitions. David Cameron couldn’t see it, but he was a symptom of the problem too: our governing class isn’t fit for purpose. Thirteen years after Cameron, Rishi Sunak is trying to head into the next election with the same essential message that his predecessor tried back then. At heart, it’s a ludicrous pitch.


is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague