Rishi Sunak: transgender comments and £1,000 bet show a PM who could crumble during election campaign

After crass transgender remarks and a £1,000 bet, how will the unelected Prime Minister cope in a general election campaign? Ralph Blackburn writes from Westminster
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In 2017, calling an election seemed like a no-brainer for Theresa May. The Tories were surging in the polls, hitting 50% at one point, and the Prime Minister’s approval ratings were far higher than lefty-grandpa Jeremy Corbyn’s.

However, when the election campaign started May came across as stiff, wooden and awkward, while Corbyn was in his element speaking in front of vast crowds. The polls closed dramatically and led to a hung Parliament and May resigning a few years later.

No one had seen May as a leader in a general election campaign and she struggled under the pressure. She appeared nervous when meeting members of the public, and crumbled under any sort of scrutiny from journalists. And now similar concerns are arising about Rishi Sunak.

Advisers have long been worried that the Prime Minister can get quite tetchy and thin-skinned when facing criticism. This was particularly highlighted by the last-minute cancellation of the meeting with the Greek Prime Minister last year, after Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on the BBC he wanted the Elgin Marbles back in Athens (shock). 

NationalWorld: 9 February. Credit: Kim MoggNationalWorld: 9 February. Credit: Kim Mogg
NationalWorld: 9 February. Credit: Kim Mogg

£1,000 bet with Piers Morgan

This week has shown that Sunak isn’t particularly good at thinking on his feet. First, we had the £1,000 bet with Piers Morgan, that flights would take off to Rwanda before the next election. It wasn’t great for optics that the richest Prime Minister in history was making a wager on a whim during a cost-of-living crisis. 

All Sunak had to say to avoid this was that it would be inappropriate for someone in his position to make such a deal, however he shook Morgan’s hand and confirmed the bet as well.

Afterwards, Sunak appeared regretful and confused. He said: “I’m not a betting person and I was taken totally by surprise in the middle of that interview.” This doesn’t augur well for him reacting under pressure. Then, when reporters pointed out that the PM had previously spoken of his enthusiasm for betting on cricket, his official spokesman was forced to deny he’s a reformed gambler.

Rishi Sunak's comments with Esther Ghey and Piers Morgan have got him into trouble. Credit: Kim Mogg/GettyRishi Sunak's comments with Esther Ghey and Piers Morgan have got him into trouble. Credit: Kim Mogg/Getty
Rishi Sunak's comments with Esther Ghey and Piers Morgan have got him into trouble. Credit: Kim Mogg/Getty

Transgender comments at PMQs

Then came the crass comments about transgender people, with Sunak making a joke about Keir Starmer not being able to “define a woman'' while Esther Ghey was in attendance at PMQs. Her trans daughter Brianna, 16, was horrifically murdered, with two sadistic teenagers jailed for life on 2 February. 

Sunak was informed about her attendance at the start of the session, yet was clearly unable to think on his feet and went ahead with the pre-scripted joke. Starmer had no such issues with thinking quickly, responding: “Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber. Shame. Parading as a man of integrity when he’s got absolutely no responsibility.”

This moment highlighted the difference between the pair. Starmer was swift to react, his years of training as a barrister kicking in, with Sunak caught off guard. Since then, Brianna’s father, Peter Spooner, said the Prime Minister should say sorry for the “degrading” and “dehumanising” remark he made in the Commons. 

Instead, the PM has doubled down, saying it is “sad and wrong” to link his joke to Brianna. I wonder why Esther Ghey requested to meet Starmer as opposed to Sunak? 

‘Mansplaining’ during TV debate

In the midst of a general election campaign, these kinds of situations, where Sunak will have to react quickly, are only going to get more common.

We don’t know how he will react as the incumbent Prime Minister in a general election, but we’ve seen him during the Tory leadership campaign, which he of course lost to Liz Truss. In particular, during one debate he continually spoke over Truss, which led to accusations of “mansplaining”. Over the course of the campaign, Truss’ approval ratings amongst Conservative members increased while Sunak’s stagnated.

‘Out of touch’ on cost of living crisis

Sunak, a multi-millionaire whose wife hails from a multi-billion pound tech dynasty, has struggled to seem relatable during the cost of living crisis. And some of his actions, from appearing not to know how to use contactless cards to flying everywhere on private jets or helicopters, have only highlighted his wealth.

The PM veers between sounding far too upbeat and out of touch about the economy, with many people still feeling the pinch of inflation and sky-high mortgage rates, to getting snippy when asked about his personal fortune. He accused Starmer of the “politics of envy” when the Labour leader referenced it in PMQs, and told ITV that criticism “says more about them and their ambition for our country, or lack of it, than it does about me and where I come from”.

More In Common’s Luke Tryl, who has done extensive polling on the PM, explained why Sunak shouldn’t attribute criticism to lack of ambition. He said: “Having heard the concern in many focus groups with all sorts of people, it’s just not true that it’s driven by lack of ambition or envy of the rich. But instead a sense that unless you went to the right school, had right parents or know people, the system is rigged against you.

“In Sunak’s case gaffes like contactless, shoes, gambling £1,000 and the non-dom stuff has created the perception that his wealth makes him out of touch. This is far more than just being wealthy, along with many thinking not enough is being done to help working people in the cost of living crisis.”

If Sunak is going to turn around the dismal poll numbers ahead of the election, he’s going to have to stop causing unnecessary headlines and start thinking quicker on his feet. Otherwise, the campaign pressure will only widen the cracks.

Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.

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