Tory MPs voice unease over Sunak’s flying pharmacy visit

Tory solution to beat the 8 am rush for GP appointments – take a helicopter! – Owl

Rishi Sunak flew to the south coast and back by helicopter to announce a new government health policy on Tuesday as he tried to calm Conservative jitters after a disastrous set of local election results.

Pippa Crerar 

In the latest example of the prime minister’s fondness for short-distance air travel, the prime minister visited Southampton to set out plans for pharmacists to provide prescriptions for millions of patients in England to help ease the GP crisis.

However, instead of getting the train from Waterloo station for the 160-mile round trip, which would have taken one hour 15 minutes and cost about £30 return, he opted to travel by air, at a cost to the taxpayer in the region of £6,000.

The visit, instead of reassuring Tory MPs that he was focused on getting on with the job after the Conservatives lost more than 950 seats in last week’s local elections, unintentionally underlined the fears of some that he is seen by voters as out of touch.

“Is it unfair to say that the weekend was about a powerful unelected individual who is unfeasibly wealthy and lacks the common touch … and King Charles III?” one Tory MP even joked darkly.

“To go backwards from our results in 2019 when we lost 1,300 seats is a damning indictment of the public view of the government. To outperform our own very low expectations is appalling.”

Sunak told reporters in Southampton that the local elections results were “obviously disappointing” but insisted his priorities were right for the country and he would “keep working” to deliver them.

His official spokesperson claimed that he had travelled by helicopter in part because he had “a series of meetings” in the afternoon that he needed to attend, with No 10 insiders insisting he was determined to stick with his plan.

Yet when his MPs returned to Westminster after the coronation weekend many were despondent. One former cabinet minister told the Guardian that Sunak’s allies were in “fantasy land” if they thought his plan could bring about the Tories returning to power next year.

“I think we can still deny Labour a majority, but I can’t see a path to us actually winning the election. Rishi has clearly decided his best bet is to stick to the path that he’s on, but I don’t think that will be enough.”

There are also concerns that voters do not see Sunak’s priorities as the right ones for the country – or at least don’t believe they’re deliverable. “If his five pledges were really the people’s priorities then they would presumably have voted for them,” one MP said.

Others have criticised party’s local election campaign, with Justin Tomlinson, the North Swindon MP, saying the Conservatives had gone into the local election lacking “a coherent message” and did not even hold a proper launch event.

“The results were devastating,” he told Times Radio. “It’s frankly insane for anybody to try and spin it otherwise … This was off the scale. We lost some very good councillors, not just in Swindon but in many parts of the country. It has to be a wake up call for the party at all levels. There’s no getting away from that.”

One former minister told the Guardian that beyond the sheer scale of losses last Thursday, the way it happened pointed towards more fundamental worries for the Conservatives.

“Obviously, a lot of it was because of where we are politically, but one thing I really noticed in my area this time is that we just don’t have the ground operation any more.

“There is a real lack of volunteers, and this is a long-term problem. We’re an ageing party. We’re a shrinking party. And every time we lose 1,000 councillors the problem gets worse. It’s going to be a real issue in the general election.”

However, one backbench MP insisted that despite the opposition gains, there was still a route for Sunak to lead the biggest party after a general election.

“Yes, some of the results were pretty grim, but voters like to give the government a kicking in local elections,” they said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they will do the same in a general election.

“Rishi has really stabilised things since Boris and Liz, and in my area people are gradually starting to notice. We’re certainly in a much better place. There was a time when Liz was PM that I worried our election loss would be so bad there was an outside chance I’d end up as opposition leader.”

Downing Street will, no doubt, take some solace from the lack of appetite from MPs for yet another Tory leadership contest – or bringing back Boris Johnson. One MP admits: “Colleagues have run out of puff, but they’re not feeling rebellious. Though I think that’s probably the worst of all worlds for the party.”

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