Tory Candidates Shun ‘Toxic’ Party Brand in Bad Omen for Sunak

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(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak ventured to the East Midlands on Friday to campaign for Ben Bradley, the Conservative candidate hoping to head the northern English region. “There’s no one better to be your first mayor,” the prime minister told a rally in Heanor, Derbyshire.

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Problem is, Bradley himself has avoided mention of either the governing Conservative Party or its embattled leader. And he’s not alone. As as they campaign in local elections set for May 2, prominent party candidates have been running social media ads actively distancing themselves from the Tory and Sunak brands, according to a Bloomberg News review of Facebook posts listed in Meta’s Ads Library.

That includes advertisements paid for by the Conservative Party itself. In one, Bradley pleads for voter support, “party politics aside.” Bradley’s parliamentary office did not respond to a request for comment.

The approach underscores a growing challenge for Sunak as he barrels toward another major election test amid rebellions in the ruling party and growing doubts about his leadership. With fresh polls this week showing support for the Tories at a low last seen during the “mini budget” debacle that prompted former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s resignation, many candidates are keeping their distance.

“It tells us that the Conservatives are getting internal polling and messages, from the strategists and consultants that they’re paying, that the Conservative Party brand is toxic, and that the Conservative Party themselves are a drag,” said Sam Power, a senior lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex. In other words, just by trying to help, Sunak and party HQ risk making things worse.

The trend bodes ill for Sunak who faces political threats from both the left and the right ahead of a general election that must be held by January. Besides the commanding poll lead Keir Starmer’s Labour Party have enjoyed for months, Reform UK — founded by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage — is increasingly drawing more conservative-minded voters.

A YouGov survey released on Thursday showed the Conservatives with 19% support — tied with their lowest level in this Parliament — while Reform recorded 15% support, their highest rating yet. Labour continued to lead with 44%, according to the survey of of 2,037 adults.

This week, the Conservative candidate for mayor in Greater Manchester, Dan Barker defected to Reform UK, describing it as “the new home of conservatism.” Barker had complained he wasn’t getting enough financial support in his uphill battle against the Labour-backed incumbent, Andy Burnham.

Concerns that the more-than 300-year-old party might not just lose power, but its status as the voice of the mainstream political right, has prompted some MPs to advocate replacing Sunak as leader. A volley of new scandals and political flaps this month even prompted some ministers to discuss whether the prime minister will be able to hang on until the general election.

A big defeat in the local polls six weeks from now could add new urgency to the plots against Sunak. Voters will select leaders in more than 100 local authorities, with London Mayor Sadiq Khan — one of Labour’s most prominent figures — running for a third term against Conservative candidate Susan Hall.

Sunak is betting that his political fortunes will improve with the economy as the year goes on, strategy that got a boost this week from sharper than expected slow down in inflation and signals from the Bank of England that policymakers might soon start cutting interest rates. In a closed-door meeting with Conservative in Parliament on Wednesday, he dismissed the plots against him as the work of a small group and urged MPs to stick to his plan.

“With the Conservatives so behind in the polls and the public moving away from the party, candidates will be looking to boost their own personal appeal in an attempt to win votes,” says Kate Dommett, a professor of Digital Politics at the University of Sheffield.

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, who publicly clashed with Sunak last year over his decision to cancel the Birmingham-to-Manchester leg of the HS2 rail project due to soaring costs, is stressing his independence as he seeks re-election. A Facebook ad on Street’s page this week stated that he and put his city “above party politics” while, in endorsing him, comedian Jasper Carrott urged residents to “vote for the person, not the party.”

The only mention of Street’s political affiliation came in the legally required disclaimer that the ad was “paid for by the Conservatives.” Leaflets sent by post feature a green background, rather than the traditional Tory blue.

That contrasts with Street’s last campaign in 2021, when he posed with a pint alongside then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Back then, some 46% of adults believed Johnson was doing well, according to a YouGov polling, compared with 25% who feel that way about Sunak’s performance now.

It’s a similar story in Teeside, where Tory Ben Houchen is defending his mayoralty. Of the 36 Facebook ads he’s run since March 7, none mention the Conservatives. Spokespeople for Street and Houchen declined to comment.

“When the central party is popular, local candidates will always try to tap into that popularity and get elected on their coattails,” said Andrew Barclay, who researches democratic engagement at Oxford University. “On the other hand, when the party’s a liability, candidates will do everything that they can to try and distance themselves from an unpopular brand.”

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