Doing a U-turn in politics is no longer news; ethics is usually for the birds in the cut-and-thrust of politics. Politicians making outlandish promises or not keeping those that helped them win power may no longer spring surprises in many locations, but they still raise hackles in Britain.

It was just the other day last summer when Rishi Sunak was bidding to be prime minister. He uploaded a slick video, promising to feed thousands of pages of EU legislation to the shredder. The video concluded with the words: ‘Keep Brexit safe. Vote Rishi Sunak today’. It was intended to burnish his Brexit credentials, to scrap EU laws long incorporated into UK law, as part of the promise of ‘taking back control’ from Brussels. A bill was also moved to set the expiry date of December 2023 (called the sunset clause) for EU laws to cease to apply in the UK; the plan was dubbed a post-Brexit bonfire of EU laws.

Last week, that promise collided with reality and his government abandoned that pledge. The fact is that over decades of EU membership, rules and regulations drawn up in Brussels have been applied in the UK across every aspect of life. Dis-applying them will create a new host of problems, besides the prospect of important laws falling away by accident. As business secretary Keri Badenoch now puts it, “Getting rid of EU law in the UK should be about more than a race to a deadline”. The climbdown was seen by some as another example of Sunak choosing pragmatism over tall Brexit claims.

The bill, expected to return to Parliament this week, is now to be amended. Officials in Whitehall who have been reviewing laws have so far identified nearly 5,000 pieces of legislation of EU origin. This new position soon invited ridicule and worse from inside and outside the ruling Conservative party: leading Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg called it an “admission of administrative failure”, while those who long opposed the move to ditch EU laws called it a “humiliating U-turn” (Labour). The anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats said the Conservatives had “dug themselves into a hole” with the bill and that “while they may have stopped digging, they’re still in the hole”.

A wider, politically more damaging effect of this is striking another blow to Sunak’s carefully cultivated image, of one who represents a clean break from the party mess of 2022, when two prime ministers —- Boris Johnson, Liz Truss —- were replaced (at a recent event, Sunak called the political turmoil a ‘box-set drama’). The narrative of a ‘steady Sunak’ has been a consoling story that many Tory MPs have told themselves, but the edges are increasingly frayed. The Sunak brand has been losing its lustre, but there is no longer any appetite in the party for another change of leader and prime minister. Sunak is expected to trundle on until the next general election in 2024.

The U-turn on EU law followed another reality check for Sunak. His first contact with the electorate as party leader during the May 4 local elections saw over 1,000 party councillors losing across England. Sunak’s team had deliberately set expectations low, but clearly not low enough. The Conservatives lost support from both sides of the Brexit divide in hundreds of councils. There has never been a direct correlation between local elections and general elections, but polling at the local level does provide a clear indicator of which way the wind is blowing.

Upbeat on higher ratings in opinion polls and major gains in the local elections, Labour leader Keri Starmer mocked Sunak for the poor Conservative results, saying the loss of councillors was “a Tory promise they actually haven’t broken…Last week, when he (Sunak) finally came into contact with voters he lost everywhere. No matter who the electorate is, the prime minister keeps entering a two-horse race and somehow finishes third. Given his track record, who does he think he’s actually got a mandate from”, he asked during a noisy Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

On his part, Sunak has been maintaining the prospect that he still has the public pull to win polls, that he could lead the party to another win in the next general election. As he countered Starmer in the House: “He (Starmer) can be as cocky as he likes about the local elections, come a general election, policy counts. The problem for him is, he doesn’t have any”. Sunak’s party will have been in power for over 14 years in 2024: a party staying in power for so long and winning another term is very rare in democratic politics anywhere. The received wisdom so far is that Labour is poised to return to power after 2010, even if it ends up as the single largest party in 2024. It is significant that Starmer last week refused to rule out a coalition with the Liberal Democrats: the third pole in British politics that has seen many gains in recent by-elections and local polls.

As columnist Andrew Rawnsley wrote in The Guardian: “We now have evidence from ‘real votes in real ballot boxes’ to tell us what the country thinks. And the answer is that voters are not swallowing Mr Sunak’s sales pitch. They are not buying it in places with marginal seats that will be critical to the outcome of the next general election, and they are rejecting it even in parts of England that have historically been deep blue. The local elections were his first electoral test since he moved into Downing Street six months ago and they confirm that a change of face at Number 10 has not assuaged the anger that people feel towards the Conservatives…The loss of more than 1,000 of their councillors was worse than their worst-case scenario”.

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