01 Kaitlan Collins Rishi Sunak Interview 0608
UK Prime Minister: I have confidence in US support of Ukraine
07:44 - Source: CNN
London CNN  — 

Rishi Sunak has just under a month to answer the most critical question he faces as British Prime Minister: why does his Conservative Party deserve another five years in power at the next election?

Next month, the governing Conservative Party’s annual conference will take place in Manchester, England. It is in all likelihood the last such gathering before the next UK general election. Sunak could in theory hold out until after next year’s conference before he calls a vote, but few think that is a good idea and most assume it will be held before next autumn.

The next few weeks, and his performance at the party conference, are critical to Sunak as they represent the last chance he has to set the agenda before the election, and his last chance to inspire party members to campaign for victory.

It’s fair to say that the mood among Conservative Members of Parliament is currently pretty low. They trail the opposition Labour Party in the polls and there is a distinct stench of a party nearing the end of its time in office lingering in the air.

On a national level, whether it’s a fair analysis or not, it often feels like very little is going right in the United Kingdom at moment.

Some students were told to stay home instead of heading back to school after the summer holidays because of safety fears over crumbling concrete used in some schools’ walls and ceilings.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gives an update on the progress made since he introduced the Illegal Migration Bill, under his plans to "stop the boats," on June 5, 2023 in Dover, England.

Police are continuing to hunt for an escaped terror suspect, prompting serious questions over the state of Britain’s prison system.

Over a particularly rainy summer, there were numerous stories of sewage being dumped into rivers and the sea, and in some cases of people catching diseases from swimming in polluted water.

Then the council running Britain’s second largest city, Birmingham, declared itself effectively bankrupt this week after it had to pay compensation to women who had historically been paid less than men for doing similar jobs.

The story highlighted how a number of local councils are seriously struggling with their finances. Fairly or not, many are blaming central government for not funding local governments sufficiently.

These are just some of the most recent examples of the problems facing the UK.

The government’s flagship policy to curb illegal immigration has also failed so badly that, amid pressure on accommodation for those arriving, asylum seekers were moved to a retrofitted barge this summer. Days later, in a major embarrassment for the government, they had to be taken off again following the detection of Legionella bacteria in the water.

Meanwhile, inflation has made more or less everything in the UK more expensive. The government’s refusal to award pay rises in line with inflation has led public sector workers, including doctors, to strike. The cost of mortgages and rents are skyrocketing for millions.

All of this comes at the end of a torrid few years for the country, which has stumbled from botched Brexit negotiations to a global pandemic to scandals felling two prime ministers in quick succession, wrecking the Conservative Party’s reputation with many voters.

People hold up placards to welcome migrants ahead of their expected arrival at the Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge in southwest England on August 7, 2023.

Sunak undoubtedly inherited a total mess when he took the helm last October.

How do Sunak and his party make the argument that it’s not time for a change after 13 years in power? Unfortunately for the prime minister, his own MPs are divided on even that question.

The moderates in the party who support Sunak say that he needs to point to his own record, particularly during the pandemic. As the UK’s finance minister, Sunak won praise for the financial support he offered people who could not work during lockdowns. He offered businesses financial support that stopped many from closing.

“He needs to make the positive case that when the worst crisis hit this country, he was able to guide the country through it,” says one supportive MP. “There are national and international forces making things tough for people, but he has a track record of making them better.”

While there are many across the political spectrum who might disagree with that statement, and some of Sunak’s policies as chancellor have been heavily criticized, electoral politics are often about putting forward a case rather than getting bogged down in details.

Some older Conservatives on the right of the party say that Sunak is not doing enough to attack his opposite number, the Labour Party’s Keir Starmer.

“All the polls show is that people are sick of us, not excited by Labour,” says one veteran Conservative, arguing that Starmer is winning by default at the moment, as Sunak is not forcing Labour to state its case on any touchstone issues.

“We need to define Labour before they define themselves… drag them onto the battlefield over things like net zero, make them take a strong position, then ask them how they will pay for it, just as an example. We have to show ordinary people that they (Labour) are a threat and the only way to do that is through the dynamic of a fight.”

The veteran went on to identify migration and other culture war issues as areas in which the Conservatives could pick fights with Labour. “We are behind in the polls and we need to do something drastic to get our voters out because Labour is dangerous.”

Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons on March 8, 2023 in London, England.