In April, Susan Hall, the Conservative Party’s candidate to replace London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan, posted a photograph on X (formerly Twitter) that Khan was planning to charge motorists for every mile that they would drive in the capital — already one of the most expensive places in the world to drive a car in. The claims were shared and reposted gleefully by Conservative supporters, columnists and even a handful of Tory MPs.

But it was a lie. Khan has categorically ruled out the so-called “Pay-Per-Mile” scheme and the picture that Hall had tweeted was Photoshopped. Despite repeatedly being called out for her lies, Hall doubled down and then released a video repeating the claim.

Making false claims about your opponents has been a part of political discourse around the world for decades — especially around election time — but it appears that, after 14 years in power, such tactics are all that’s left for Britain’s Conservatives and their beleaguered leader, Rishi Sunak.

When he was anointed Britain’s first Indian-origin prime minister in October 2022, it was hailed as a celebration of Britain’s progressive, multicultural democracy. More importantly, after the buffoonery and chaos of the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss months, Sunak promised “integrity” and “accountability”.

Why Rishi Sunak, the great hope of multicultural Britain, fell flat and is about to fizzle out

Instead, his administration has been marked by in-fighting between multiple factions and posturing.

The Conservatives are mutilating themselves from within — moderate centrists and traditional conservatives in a seemingly life-and-death battle with extreme right-wingers who want to shred Britain’s international legal obligations, like the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which the Conservative leader Winston Churchill helped draft, and who are never shy about being Islamophobic or to protest against “wokeness”, whatever that means at any given time.

The public, weighed down by a cost-of-living crisis and crumbling public services — including Britain’s world-renowned National Health Service — appear to have had enough.

An important recent survey of more than 15,000 people by Survation forecasts that Keir Starmer’s Labour will win a vast 286-seat majority at the general election later this year — with the Conservatives reduced to an embarrassing 80 seats.

And yet it could have all been so different.

When Sunak was appointed Minister of Finance in 2020, it inspired confidence in markets — despite the ongoing damage caused by Brexit.

When Covid-19 hit, he quickly implemented sound policies, including the furlough scheme, which helped steer companies through the worst public health crisis in a century. Sunak enjoyed huge levels of popularity for aiding employees. His “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme then helped prop up Britain’s vitally important hospitality sector.

But the economic aftermath of the pandemic — made worse by the additional cost of Brexit — has meant that Sunak’s reputation for economic pragmatism has dissolved rapidly.

He’s also been fined for breaking Covid-19 rules; his cabinet ministers have been continually caught up in various scandals; and there have been defections and a coterie of MPs whose one solution to all life’s problems is to bring back Boris Johnson. Being the fifth-worst prime minister in seven years and being forced to fix every problem your predecessors had to resign for, is no easy job.

Making things worse is that he is robotic and has no feel for how ordinary people live their lives. He was widely mocked for not knowing how to pay for a can of Coke at a petrol station. He hasn’t been able to stem leaks from Downing Street, which claim that he is just counting down the days until he loses the general election and can scarper off to California to take up some multi-million dollar gig as a Silicon Valley mandarin — while ordinary people struggle to pay their gas bills and nurses are forced to rely on food banks to feed themselves and their families.

He lacks the political nous to get things done, instead relying on platitudes and statements written by recent political science graduates to deal with great matters of state — whether it’s the cost of living crisis or the ECHR.

The much-hailed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with India has stalled and has barely crawled ahead under his leadership. The son of immigrant parents who lived the quintessential immigrant story — fleeing East Africa and establishing themselves and educating their children to the highest possible level — Sunak has repeatedly demonised immigrants, even publicly defending a major donor who made racist comments about migrants and Muslims.

Curiously enough, apart from the asylum seekers who trickle in on small boats across the English Channel, the anti-immigrant rhetoric of his government has been felt most by the tens of thousands of South Asians and Africans who have arrived in the UK to fill the employment gaps left by the Europeans, who have fled the UK in their tens of thousands since the Brexit vote.

The man who promised “integrity” and “transparency” has been found to have exercised anything but. The companies owned by his wife Akshata Murty — reportedly worth some 800 million pounds — are said to have saved many multiple millions by manipulating the tax system, while other companies have benefitted directly from government policies.

Above all else, it is apparent that Sunak — the great hope for multicultural Britain — is unable to feel empathy. He can’t imagine how it feels to be someone else — whether it’s a nurse or an asylum seeker. There is no understanding of how to lose, to win, to feel desperate, to feel hungry or to be ignored.

He just doesn’t understand.

Poonam Joshi is a UK-based journalist and has covered global events across the UK and Europe as a foreign correspondent.

By arrangement with The Wire

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 19th, 2024