Rishi Sunak has been Prime Minister for just over 100 days. Throughout his tenure, he has been navigating the choppy waters of a cost-of-living crisis and grappling with an NHS under increasing pressure. However, one of the most challenging aspects of his time in No.10 has been distancing himself, and his administration, from the scandals that ended the tenure of Boris Johnson.

As a series of crises engulfed the Conservative Party in 2022, with “Partygate” and subsequent fixed penalty notices for senior members of the Government, trust in politicians – never very high – fell to a record low. At the end of last year, only one in eight (12%) told us they trusted politicians; the last time we saw similar results was at the height of the expenses scandal in 2009 when 13% said they trusted politicians. 

Despite the Prime Minister’s best intentions to outline a policy platform ahead of the next General Election, addressing macro-economic issues and structural issues with the NHS, his administration has already been buffeted by allegations of ministerial misconduct. Nadhim Zahawi, The Conservative Party Chairman faced political and media attention throughout January over his tax arrangements which has recently led to his resignation after an inquiry found he had failed to disclose that HMRC was investing his tax affairs. Amid this, the Prime Minister himself received a second fixed penalty notice during his time in Government after appearing in a video whilst not wearing a seatbelt. 

How have recent scandals impacted the Government?

Historically, an isolated incident, such as Rishi Sunak’s fixed penalty notice, has a negligible impact on public opinion. However, over the last 18 months or so, repeated stories of misbehaviour have clearly affected the Conservative Party’s brand. 

The Conservative Party is experiencing a serious image problem, which is likely to reinforce negative public opinion and could have an impact on its long-term electoral chances. Only one in ten believe the Conservative party keeps its promises, down from 14% in 2021 and their lowest score for over a decade. 

Whilst these numbers will worry CCHQ, is this terminal? The question is: are the public more interested in standards in public life or the ability to deliver policies that will improve their lives? Of course, it isn’t really an either/or – belief that the Conservative party keeps its promises has fallen 15 points since 2019, while belief that they are fit to govern has fallen 30 points, and that they have a good team of leaders is down 26.  Before the last 3 elections, Labour and the Conservatives have been rated pretty similarly on keeping promises – but the Conservatives have had a clear lead on being fit to govern and having a good team of leaders each time. Now, though, they are behind on all three.

Integrity over Delivery? 

The series of scandals coincided with a significant fall in support for the Conservatives, but the Government also needs to move the dial on the key issues facing voters today, namely the NHS (42%), the economy (37%) and inflation (36%).

The January Ipsos Issues Index highlights that the public believes substantive issues around delivery on economic and health policy are paramount. By contrast, improving faith in politics was cited by 11% as one of the most critical issues in Britain today, back to its five-year average – albeit, before the most recent news. 

Swift and decisive action on ministerial conduct issues, such as Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs, is the most effective way of limiting the fall-out. The impact of a single incident, if dealt with swiftly, is far less damaging than a rolling series of issues which compound negative public opinion and gain momentum, as shown throughout Boris Johnson’s tenure. Accusations of misconduct may have more of a reinforcing effect on voters who already hold negative views towards the Conservatives, while having less impact on their own supporters.  

Honesty and integrity are of course important character traits that people want to see in their Prime Minister; polling after Boris Johnson’s resignation identified honesty as important (68%), alongside understanding Britain’s problems and ahead even of strong leadership (56%) and being good in a crisis (54%).  On this, Rishi Sunak can take comfort from the fact that he is seen as more honest than other politicians than Boris Johnson was (25% to 9%), but he remains some way behind Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer on 35%. But as with party image, perceptions of honesty aren’t always the deciding trait when it comes to successful PMs. In 2019, Boris Johnson was behind Jeremy Corbyn when it came to honesty, but ahead on being a capable leader, and similarly for Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher they often had bigger leads on capability than they ever did on being more honest than their opponents. 

None of this is to downplay the importance of honesty and integrity in politics, and the impact that a persistent, long-running set of questions can and has had. Rishi Sunak will clearly at least want to close the gap with Labour on this – while trust in the Conservative brand is so low, beginning a recovery in the polls will be much harder. But with a new Prime Minister delivery is also key, and in either case the priority for the Conservatives should be to move the conversation on from scandals and questions of trust and to focus on action to deliver on the public’s priorities: inflation; the economy; and better delivery of public services, particularly the NHS. Anything that distracts from that task could be electorally damaging. 

Kelly Beaver is CEO of Ipsos.

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