Ahead of crucial elections that both men face next year, footage of the smiles and hugs will be of mutual benefit for their respective political campaigns. Each will tell their voters they are world statesmen respected by their peers.
But it’s Sunak who stands to gain most, not just appearing alongside Biden but from picking up yet more tips on how an incumbent can hold on to power against the odds. And as an unashamed lover of everything American (he was a US Green Card holder until last year, don’t forget), it’s perhaps no surprise that the PM is keen on running his very own “presidential” campaign back home.
Despite the Tories’ large poll deficit, part of the reason for the remarkably dogged optimism of some of those around Sunak is that he is personally much more popular than the Conservative Party itself.
Indeed, this “Sunak effect” was cited in a new study by centre-right think tank Onward on Tuesday, which found that while the Tories were bombing among millennial voters (those aged 25 to 40), Sunak was actually pretty well liked. Among thirty-somethings, he is a whopping 25 points more popular than his party.
Not for nothing does Sunak continue to deploy slick US-style videos and photos on his social media channels, itself an echo of the “brand Rishi” that he used when he ran the Treasury. The projected image was of a young, polite, likeable, go-getting managerial type. His signature, style and his smile were plastered over every poster.
By contrast, Keir Starmer is seen by even some in his Shadow Cabinet as a drag anchor on their party’s ratings. His personal popularity is nowhere near as high as that of Labour itself.
Sunak’s personal ratings seem to be one reason why Starmer’s strategists have opted to go negative in a big way against him in recent months, most startlingly with an online advert that suggested the PM did not believe “adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison”.
There’s a wider justification in that Labour want to tie Sunak to not just his own time in No 10 but to the 13 years of Tory rule since 2010. They aim to force him to take responsibility for everything from Cameronian austerity to low economic growth under his Chancellorship.
Yet there are other reasons why a presidential campaign could be a forlorn hope for Sunak preventing, or at least watering down, a Labour victory at the next election.
First, is the obvious fact that even Starmer is doing better than him when it comes to “best Prime Minister” ratings. Second, is that Sunak’s personal ratings are again firmly in negative territory, with a new poll putting him on minus 14 points, the lowest since February.
But there’s also another difficulty, and one unearthed in new research by the More in Common think-tank. Instead of asking traditional questions about party leader approval ratings, they asked how much of an “asset” the leaders were to their parties.
If Sunak really were a better presidential performer, you would expect his asset rating to be much higher. Unfortunately for him and for Conservative Campaigns HQ, both men are pretty similar (Sunak is seen as a net asset by 7 points, Starmer by 6 points).
Worse still, Starmer is well ahead on this measure among 2019 “Red Wall” former Labour voters (+4 points to Sunak’s -3 points). The crumb of comfort for the Tories is that Sunak fares much better in the “Blue Wall” on this metric.
There’s also the added problem of the man who was a better presidential candidate than either Starmer or Sunak could ever hope to be: Boris Johnson. Polls regularly show that Johnson’s hard core of followers, in the Tory party and among ex Labour voters, still like him.
That fits with one of Starmer’s most wounding jibes in Prime Minister’s Questions in the wake of the local election thrashing of the Conservatives, that Sunak “keeps entering a two-horse race and somehow finishing third”.
But Johnson’s own negatives among a huge swath of voters have been revived by both his defiant denials he did anything wrong over Partygate and by the new row over his WhatsApp messages and notebooks that are being demanded by the Covid inquiry.
Both are a reminder of the chaos of the Johnson regime and of the huge distractions of the past few years as the Conservatives failed to deliver on their pledges of a better life after Brexit, of lower migration, of higher wages and growth.
Every time Johnson pops up, he’s a one-man equivalent of those irritating TV and radio ads that asked “were you missold PPI?” For those who felt they were missold promises in 2019, their only compensation is to boot the party out of office. Johnson proved that even the most gifted salesman will fail if the product they’re selling needs sending back.
Even among those millennials who are “shy capitalists” more receptive to Sunak, the double whammy that they face a punishing lack of affordable housing and high marginal taxes (thanks to their student loans) means they’re unlikelier than ever to actually vote Tory.
Despite the “silver lining” about the “Sunak effect” among some younger voters, the most startling element of the Onward research is the huge black cloud it discovered. The words the 25-40 year-olds most associate with the Conservatives are damning: “dishonest”, “incompetent”, “out of touch”, “self-serving” and “break their promises”.
Liz Truss’s economic implosion last autumn, which led to a hike in borrowing costs, is still reverberating too. The massive mortgage premium now faced by those in their 40s and 50s (only a third of the impact of higher interest rates has yet to materialise) means one can see why there’s a lot more pain to come for homeowners – and the Tory party’s ratings.
In any presidential campaign the gap between Sunak’s own housing wealth and the housing ill-health of the UK may also feature. Even Biden couldn’t resist reminding people recently that the PM “still has a home here in California” (as well as a home in Kensington and a mansion in Yorkshire). Expect that to be clipped in a Labour attack ad.
Labour also knows that while most of the public aren’t keen on the politics of envy, stories about Sunak’s energy bills for his swimming pool have “cut through”. Perceptions that he doesn’t quite get the daily struggle most people face with prices, wages or public services lead even some Tory MPs to dub him “Ed Miliband in Prada shoes”.
Most important of all, while “brand Rishi” may be an asset to some, the Tory brand is so toxic in the eyes of many voters that it’s hard to see any speedy recovery. Neither Sunak’s, nor Starmer’s, personal ratings matter much in comparison to that blunt fact.
Ultimately, Britain is still a parliamentary democracy, not a presidency, and that’s why a party’s brand and policy delivery matters more than the personality of its leader. Sunak should enjoy his trip to the White House, but when he returns to Blighty he’ll be back to the reality of what looks like a baked-in Labour lead.