The incredible shrinking man: Rishi Sunak’s gut reaction is always wrong | John Crace

Rishi Sunak is the incredible shrinking man. The more you see of him, the less there appears to be. When he became prime minister, he had the appearance of a moderately successful – if rather over-eager – tech bro, brought in to save the Conservative party from itself. But that was a chimera. Because Rish! isn’t even that successful. He’s a politician with the fatal flaw of not being very good at politics. A man unable to convince others that he inhabits their world. Now he’s just a ball of need. Desperate to be liked, but unable to make an emotional connection with voters.

To be fair, Sunak has the odds stacked against him. It’s not entirely his fault the Tories voted for Liz Truss rather than him. Though imagine how useless the Conservative membership must think him to be if they went full on Trussterfuck. It’s not his fault that Putin invaded Ukraine. But he has to take the blame for the Tories’ record of 13 years in government when it’s hard to think of anything that works better now than it did in 2010.

And it’s a unique talent to make every bad situation worse. His gut reaction is almost always the wrong one. Take the strikes. Everyone knows the endgame. The unions and the government get around a table and agree a compromise. Everyone except Rish!. He has chosen to pick a fight with the nurses and paramedics. A battle he’s never going to win, because almost the entire country has already picked a side. And it’s not with the government. When nurses pay has been eroded over such a long period – some are using food banks to get by – and their union calls for strike action for the first time in its history, then a stand has to be taken.

Sunak is dying a slow death. Nowhere more so than at prime minister’s questions. Week after week, he gets dismantled by Keir Starmer. Practice makes imperfect. His backbenchers try to lift his spirits with Operation Confirmation Bias. AKA cheering enthusiastically every time Rish! says something intellectually incoherent. It’s most disarming. Nor can he still claim to be a newcomer to the job. Even if his MPs don’t demand more, the country does.

It’s not even as if the Labour leader blindsides Sunak with left-field questions. Rather he asks the ones that any normal person would think to ask. So here’s the thing. Rish! has had hours, if not days – he doesn’t get out much – to rehearse his answers. To think of the killer line that will somehow neuter the opposition attacks. To sell his government to the country. And yet every time he falls to the occasion. Keep this up and it can’t be long before some of the savvier Tories realise they have backed a no-hoper. Though maybe it’s just that they can’t find anyone better.

Wednesday was no exception. Starmer kept it short and sweet. How long should it take for an ambulance to arrive for someone who had suffered a stroke or a heart attack?

Sunak looked totally bewildered. Even though ambulance response times had made the front pages of every paper for weeks. Instead of trying to give a sensible answer, instead of trying to appear emotionally intelligent by showing he cared about the state of the NHS, he just went for the easy putdown. Or what he thought was the easy putdown. It was all the fault of Labour. Even though it hadn’t been in government for well over a decade. If Labour had backed the anti-strike laws then every ambulance would have arrived on time. Simples.

What? This was car-crash politics. Beyond parody. Just think of the possibilities. That Rish! believes all ambulance drivers don’t give a toss about their patients. That one of the reasons they are striking isn’t because they want to make an already unsafe service safer. That paramedics are the reason for the delays in ambulances. It gets worse. Because it also assumes that the anti-strike laws will make the ambulance response times quicker on non-strike days. Duh! Or that the service is actually safer on days when everyone is on strike. Clue: it isn’t. But his backbenchers cheered him anyway. It’s only Sunak that doesn’t appear to appreciate the NHS is in crisis.

Starmer went on to build his case. The response time was meant to be 18 minutes. But in Peterborough you’d be lucky to get an ambulance in two hours. In Plymouth it was more than two and a half hours. Rish! shrugged. What was any of this to do with him? Then the Labour leader cut to the chase. These weren’t hypothetical cases. This is what happened to Stephanie who died waiting. Welcome to Sunak’s NHS.

Cue more defensive froth. It was worse in Wales, said Rish!. Great news for Stephanie, who could have chosen to die there instead. Starmer was just playing party politics. Mmm. There was only one person playing party politics and it wasn’t the Labour leader. Another plug for his anti-strike laws which even his own advisers believed will make a bad situation worse. Shouts that Starmer had broken his promises. From a prime minister who had never made a promise he had kept. No responsibility taken for the lethal chaos.

It didn’t get better. A few Tories tried to lob him some softballs, but Sunak hasn’t got a positive narrative spin. And near the end, Labour’s Alex Sobel asked for more details about the curiously absent Nadhim Zahawi’s £3m payout to HMRC. How fortunate that ministers are allowed to come to their own arrangements with the tax department!

Sunak barely graced this with an answer. As far as he was concerned, Zahawi had provided full disclosure on his tax affairs and that was more than good enough for his promised government of transparency, professionalism and integrity. Only Zahawi has given no details to anyone other than his own accountant. And he has gone to ground. Of course anyone should be allowed to pay whatever they feel is right. Or they can get away with.

The session ended with a question on Narendra Modi. Rish! looked shocked. He couldn’t imagine why the Indian prime minister had been implicated in the murder of Muslims. Not an old family friend! We billionaires must stick together. Glad to have cleared that one up.

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