The dire poll numbers facing Rishi Sunak are no joke but Britain’s prime minister took time out in advance of the upcoming Conservative Party conference to deliver a gag-filled speech at a gathering of Westminster journalists in central London.
His predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, as well former health secretary Matt Hancock, were all among the targets of Sunak’s address at the Westminster Correspondents’ annual dinner in the old National Liberal Club building, now a hotel in the civil service hub of Whitehall.
It’s fair to say comedic expectations for the technocratic Sunak were low among attendees, including some dubious cabinet ministers, in advance of Thursday night’s event, a British version of the White House Correspondents’ dinner usually addressed by US presidents.
Still, he appeared to exceed predictions with his surprising comic timing, even if he was unlikely to be still laughing when he saw the latest seat-by-seat projections for the next general election, which emerged hours later.
Sunak was introduced to the lectern by co-chair of the Westminster lobby of journalists, the Daily Express’s Sam Lister, who noted it was his first “and possibly last” address to the group as prime minister.
Conservative Party members from all over Britain will gather this weekend in Manchester for its annual conference, which includes a karaoke session on one of the nights. Sunak predicted Johnson might sing a duet with Nadine Dorries, a former MP and still a sycophant of Johnson’s. The song? Nothing Compares 2 U, the Prince number made famous by Sinéad O’Connor.
Meanwhile, Liz Truss could sing Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me, said Sunak, jibing the woman he replaced in Downing Street for her recent unrepentant interventions in public debate, during which she blamed others for the fiscal upheaval last year that followed her government’s ill-fated policies.
“I’m glad to see that Liz Truss has been quietly reflecting,” he said, wryly. The famously diminutive Sunak also suggested that he might sing at Conference Karaoke himself, with a tune such as Tiny Dancer by Elton John.
Hancock’s pivot from politician into reality television star was also mocked by Sunak, who mentioned it in the context of his government’s Online Safety Bill: “It is designed to prevent the spread of harmful, malicious and undignified contents, just like a 44-year-old former health secretary lip-syncing to a Barbie song on TikTok teacher.”
Sunak also sent himself up once again, echoing criticism he received last week for a speech in which he U-turned on a number of climate issues, including his exhortation that “I have scrapped that” for a litany of measures which had not actually been introduced.
“I’ve heard some very worrying proposals. And tonight I want to confirm that under my government they will never happen,” said Sunak is his comedic address. “The ban on Christmas. I’ve scrapped it. The plan for pubs open for just an hour a day. I’ve scrapped it. The ban on Strictly. I’ve scrapped it.”
Cabinet members present included education secretary Gillian Keegan, who was recently criticised for a foul-mouthed rant over collapsing school buildings, and Chris Heaton-Harris, who is leading the UK government in discussions with the DUP to get power sharing back up and running in the North.
The Sunak government’s lighthearted reprieve was short-lived, however, as research emerged on Friday morning suggesting up to six members of the cabinet may lose their seats in a projected Labour landslide in next year’s election.
The seat-by-seat polling for the Times newspaper by consultancy Stonehaven also predicted that Jacob Rees-Mogg, the arch Brexiteer defending a seat in Somerset, would also lose out. Other senior Tories the polling suggested might be in trouble were Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor of the exchequer, and Greg Hands, the Conservative Party chairman.
The possibility of looming electoral disaster has forced Sunak into a series of dramatic policy interventions over the last week, including a rollback of climate change measures to curry favour with working class voters in the north of England, as well as the controversial approval this week of a new oilfield at Rosebank in the North Sea.
Meanwhile, Truss seems set to continue as a thorn in Sunak’s side with her market economy pronouncements. She is scheduled to lead a “Great British Growth Rally” at a fringe event at the Manchester conference.