May 2, 2023 - 1:15pm

Rishi Sunak is rich. His wife, Akshata Murty, is even richer. Their combined fortune is put at £730 million — over twice the estimated wealth of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. He has a £180 mug. He even admitted (a long time ago) on TV that he has “no working-class friends”. This has prompted the Labour Party to repeatedly claim that the Prime Minister is out of touch and, crucially, that he is too rich to properly understand the working-class voters won over to the Tory cause by Theresa May and Boris Johnson. 

Sunak will be buoyed, then, by the findings of a new YouGov poll, which shows that he is regarded by the public, albeit narrowly, as a better leader than Keir Starmer. This includes a small lead (+3%) among working-class voters. Not too bad for a multi-millionaire. 

There are some caveats here. It is often easier for people to imagine the current PM as a national leader because, well, that’s what they already do: this is a luxury that the Opposition lacks. These differences, on sub-samples, are also small. But it does suggest that Labour is struggling in its mission to paint Sunak as an out-of-touch posh boy. There are fairly obvious reasons for this. 

Firstly, it does not seem like Labour under Starmer has anything positive to put forward. He has done admirable work in forcing antisemitism out of the party, but nobody thinks “we used to be full of racist cranks, but now we’re not” is a winner on the doorstep. Secondly, the Labour leader is hardly the epitome of working-class grit — he is Sir Keir Starmer, after all — and how many blokes in working-class towns have their own statutory instrument allowing them to avoid paying tax? This would appear to be a case of one rule for them and another for us.

Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, there has been a class-based shift in party support over recent years, turbocharged by Brexit. If we take the traditional measure of social class — AB (roughly upper- and middle-middle class), C1 (lower-middle class), C2 (skilled working-class), and DE (semi-skilled and unskilled working class) — we can see the changes clearly. In 1997 the Conservatives led Labour among ABs by 10 points, and drew level with them among C1s. Among the C2 group they trailed by 23 points and among DE by 39 points. By 2010, the Conservatives led among AB, C1, and C2 voters (13, 11 and 8 points respectively), and trailed by just 10 points among DEs. By 2019, however, the Conservatives led among all social classes. 

Yet what is most striking is that the gap between support for the Conservatives over Labour among the middle class and the working class has shrunk — from a massive 49 points between AB and DE in 1997 to just 13 points in 2019. Working-class Brits have become more Tory, just as middle-class Britain has become more supportive of Labour.

In light of this narrowing of the class divide amongst voting intention, it should be less of a surprise that leadership evaluations follow suit. Take, for instance, the question of “who would make the best prime minister”. In July 2019, the newly-elected Johnson beat Jeremy Corbyn by +17 among ABC1s and by +25 among C2DEs. He later beat Starmer by 17 and 32 points among ABC1s and C2DEs respectively. Although Starmer bested Truss upon her election, his lead was much greater among the former social group (+36) than the latter (+19). And although Sunak trailed Sir Keir among the wealthier brackets (-10 points) at the end of last year, the new PM did lead among the less well-off (+2).  

What can we take from this? Labour’s labelling of Sunak as “out of touch” is likely to be met with a muted response given the structural changes in party support among the electorate. That Sunak is very wealthy is already “priced in” to evaluations about him and, although he lacks Johnson’s star quality, he also lacks the chaos and moral failings that brought his great rival’s premiership to an untimely end.

David Jeffery is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.