Coronavirus budget lines up Rishi Sunak for tricky relaunch of his political brand
The question is whether the popular brand the chancellor's team has built can survive a retightening of the purse strings.
LONDON — Relaunching a product can be the hardest task for a brand — as U.K. Chancellor Rishi Sunak could be about to find out.
The chancellor has cultivated a persona around his pandemic support packages of a human face who has the nation’s back through tough times. And the public, on the whole, seems to love him.
It helps to be the guy paying millions of worker’s wages through the furlough scheme and handing out cash to businesses to keep them afloat, but getting the message across has also involved innovative communications approaches — using high quality social media content and giving curveball interviews, like the sit-down he plans with trusted consumer finance expert Martin Lewis on Thursday night.
But “Swishy Rishi,” as one commentator dubbed him, signalled on Wednesday that the Treasury’s largesse can’t last forever. That may put his personal support at risk too.
In his budget statement, he said the pandemic support measures will be wound down as the U.K. moves out of the crisis, and that tax rises will have to come to rebalance the books. Corporation tax will rise to 25 percent in 2023 (although small firms will be protected) and income tax allowance thresholds for workers will be frozen to 2026.
All in all, the budget sets a roadmap towards £25 billion in extra tax takes in the year the next general election is due to be held, and there are some departmental budget cuts to boot.
“I know the British people don’t like tax rises. Nor do I,” he told a press conference in Downing Street on Wednesday night. “But I also know they dislike dishonesty even more. That’s why I’ve been honest with you about the problem we have and our plan to fix it.” He repeated the message in a morning interview round on Thursday, telling the BBC’s “Today” program that he wanted to be “honest about those challenges.”
The question is whether the popular brand his team has built, which has helped Sunak win mass public support and put him in pole position to be the next prime minister, can survive a tightening of the purse strings.
Expectations are that as long as he keeps the public onside, his reputation is unlikely to implode. “My view is that as long as the budget is seen as fair, his popularity can live longer than just while he’s doling out the cash,” said James Johnson, a polling expert who used to run surveys for Downing Street.
“It feels like ‘Brand Rishi’ is pretty resistant to any major tax changes,” said Sonia Khan, a former adviser at the Treasury.
Others are less convinced. “I never hear many people talk down Father Christmas,” said one Conservative MP. “But being Father Christmas is not the role of the chancellor.”
The Sunak persona has reached more people than government ministers usually do, in part due to a slick, Washington-style social media operation headed up by adviser Cass Horowitz, who co-founded his own creative comms firm.
Photos of the chancellor in his sharp suits and casual wear are common, while his signature adorns pleasing graphics to promote support measures and other policies. Sunak has also done interviews with curveball outlets like entertainment platform LadBible as well as Glamour Magazine.
He’s not shy of video either. He was mocked ahead of the budget for a six-minute epic about his first year as chancellor, and has been sitting down for talks with celebrities such as chef Gordon Ramsay to help get the message out, and finance pro Lewis — one of the most trusted faces in Britain on money matters.
Observers in Westminster believe the branding is part of a long-game leadership bid, but allies of the chancellor insist it is not about him and more about a positive drive to get the message of what the government is doing out to as many people via the platforms they actually use.
Tying himself to his policies is something all MPs do, but Sunak just happens to be doing it better than everyone else, in a way that reflects how people digest content in the modern age — so his efforts are getting noticed.
Sunak and his team are “absolutely killing it” on the brand front, said Tom Dixon, managing director of Westminster Digital, a content creation firm that has worked with a number of MPs.
Dixon said speaking to people like Ramsay would allow Sunak to access the chef’s followers — reaching people who do not usually engage with politics. And he said social media is not just about MPs competing with each other in the political space. “You need to compete with the new John Lewis advert, or the new Nike advert,” he explained. “You have to compete with that high-level content.”
Others are less impressed with the current approach. Some Conservatives complain that Sunak prefers to cultivate his personal image over that of the team. But most don’t buy the suggestion he is in it for himself. “If the ego is there he hides it extremely well,” one MP said.
The opposition sees an opportunity in Sunak’s slick PR operation too. During the budget debate in the Commons, Labour leader Keir Starmer mocked the chancellor. “I’m sure this budget will look better on Instagram,” he said. “In fact, this week’s PR video cost the taxpayer so much, I was half expecting to see a line in the OBR [fiscal watchdog] forecast for it.”
Eat out to spread the virus
Sunak is the most popular Conservative politician and the fifth most well known, according to YouGov, and even has a net positive rating in Scotland — where most Tories struggle to cut through.
His approval ratings have not suffered despite criticisms that his Eat Out to Help Out scheme might have fueled coronavirus infections by sending members of the public to restaurants, or that big chunks of the population were not covered by financial support packages.
Voters feel he connects with them, is honest, and is “not just another politician,” according to Johnson, the ex-Downing Street pollster, who has monitored the response to the chancellor in focus groups for his firm JL Partners. “Of course also being ‘not just another politician’ is very dangerous for politicians and eventually usually unwinds.”
So far, it appears Brand Rishi will survive the budget announcements. Businesses offered a muted response to the corporation tax rises, and were handed the sweetener of a generous investment scheme. Meanwhile, polls suggest hiking rates has broad support among the public, including among Conservatives. A snap YouGov poll after the budget found 69 percent supported the corporation tax rises, while a Savanta Comres survey found 66 percent trust Sunak to do the best thing for the economy.
Khan, the former government aide, said businesses were expecting tax rises, and the public will bear increases unless they start to hit the pockets of those on low incomes.
“I think the trickier bit for him is when he starts defining Sunak-ism,” she said. “Rishi has had to be quite reactive, but there is always the question of whether he is a Thatcherite or paving a way forward which is very interventionist. That is when the brand might be hurt a bit.”