There are few more high-profile and pressurised jobs than leading a country. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the pressure appears to be getting to British prime minister Rishi Sunak.
Lagging behind in the polls and with an election inexorably looming this calendar year, Sunak has recently garnered a reputation for being tetchy. He has appeared irritable when asked fairly basic questions during press conferences about his policies and his government’s general record in office.
In December, he became spiky with journalists asking about his Rwanda deportation plan at a press conference that he himself called on the very same subject. In November, he suddenly cancelled a meeting with Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, apparently irritated by the latter speaking publicly about the Parthenon marbles. In this case, Sunak passed up on the opportunity to discuss immigration with a key ally in what was seen as a move motivated by petulance.
In historical terms, Sunak’s behaviour is perhaps not surprising. Plenty of other prime ministers have shown themselves to have a short fuse. In fact, this is perhaps to be expected when an embattled premier is under extreme pressure and appears backed into a corner from a number of different directions. That doesn’t however, make it a good idea.
An obvious historical comparison for Sunak’s current predicament is John Major, who spent much of his final term dealing with a barrage of crises. These included Black Wednesday, when the UK was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, and a litany of sleaze scandals engulfing his MPs. He led a poisonously divided cabinet of ministers, several of whom Major described as “bastards” in a hot-mic moment following a TV interview.
Major’s government was eventually destabilised to such a degree that he decided to resign as leader of his party and run for re-election to the position in 1995, all while still in the job as prime minister.
In such hostile circumstances, Major was evidently tetchy. He became increasingly irritated by the tabloid press and its coverage of his party. His aides apparently used to hide the newspapers from him to avoid him seeing what was being written about him. This was of course the pre-internet era, when that was possible.
Major’s over-sensitivity became a problem that gnawed away at his premiership, arguably distracting from his core strategy and preventing him from focusing on practical governance. This could be said to have contributed to the sense of drift and crisis that ensued up to 1997. It has been alleged that Major had an inclination towards score settling and the bearing of grudges, which is never a good use of a person’s time and energy.
He even fell out with media mogul Rupert Murdoch who, until that point, had been a staunch ally of the Conservatives. As Major slid from favour, Murdoch’s broadly right-wing media empire eventually switched allegiance to Tony Blair’s New Labour. Sunak has not yet lost this battle but can hardly afford to risk replicating Major’s mistakes.
Labour prime minister Gordon Brown was also accused of being irascible during his time in office.
Brown lacked the personal skills and charm of his predecessor Tony Blair and was often depicted as being something of a control freak – even paranoid about protecting his own public image. But that didn’t stop him becoming a target for mockery.
Once Brown’s image had shifted from the prudent “iron chancellor” of the Blair era to the grumpy and irritable prime minister, his poll ratings took a nosedive.
In the age of intensive media attention, tetchiness is even riskier behaviour. It is too easy to be caught off guard and generate negative headlines. Every grimace and every curt reply can be turned into a clip or screenshot that can be instantly used as social media fodder.
The Labour opposition has already started to do just this, clearly recognising an opportunity in Sunak’s apparently easily tested temper.
Sunak, Major and Brown all became prime minster in the middle of a term, having inherited the top job without a mandate of their own. Both Major and Brown ended up being the tail end of longstanding administrations. They may have become tetchy partially because of the difficulties involved in running a dying administration. But few would argue that their tetchiness was not also a source of problems.
More experienced political operators like Margaret Thatcher, Blair and David Cameron often seemed to deal with pressure far better, at least in terms of maintaining calmer, less irritable public images. All notably benefited from strong media-management advice, most notably from Bernard Ingham in the case of Thatcher and from Alastair Campbell in the case of Blair. These figures were dominant in their respective administrations, with the capacity to manage and mould their PM’s public image better than various others have done since. Maybe Sunak should take note.
While some may empathise with prime ministerial demands to constantly respond to what are sometimes mischievous questions, that’s ultimately the nature of political power. No British prime minister has a right not to be asked questions and scrutinised. It’s a key part of the job. Indeed, the voting public fully expect them to be able to answer for the decisions made on their behalf.
Mid-term successors like Sunak, despite senior cabinet-level experience, have ultimately been thrown in at the deep end. They assume power in chaotic circumstances in the face of growing public scepticism. This extremely challenging scenario explains Sunak’s attitude but that doesn’t make it understandable to voters. Major and Brown never won back the public and both lost elections – something Sunak should remember the next time he is asked a tricky question.