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The ‘i’s Have It: British PM Rishi Sunak Puts Himself Before Party on Social Media

LONDON – Britsh opposition leader Keir Starmer likes to put his Labour Party front and centre in his social media messaging. For Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, it is all about himself. The British Premier is more than 25 times likelier to use the word “I” than name his own Conservative Party in posts on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, according to research by Bloomberg. Mr Starmer, for his part, is twice as likely to name Labour than use the personal pronoun. The language reflects the fortunes of the men and their respective parties in national polling.

The Tories have trailed Labour by a double-digit margin for approaching a year, according to YouGov, which last gave the governing party a lead in December 2021. While Mr Sunak regularly out-polls his party, voters rate Labour more than they do Mr Starmer.  Mr Sunak’s office declined to comment. The Conservative Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment. “It is in the party’s interest to let Sunak be the front face, because he’s the one with higher credibility,” said Dr Despina Alexiadou, a politics lecturer at the University of Strathclyde.

“The party is discredited on the basis of the past leaders.” Mr Starmer’s approach makes sense because “he needs to be the unifying leader”, she said. YouGov’s latest poll puts Labour 20 points ahead, giving Mr Sunak a mountain to climb to win a general election that he must hold in January 2025 at the latest. But while focusing on the individual may have served Mr Boris Johnson well in the last vote in 2019, the technocratic Mr Sunak lacks his charisma.

“It takes a very brave politician to place himself above his party,” said Mr Carl Shoben, director of strategic communications at polling company Survation. “Individual politicians like to think that they’re a driver, but incredibly rarely are.” Former prime minister Theresa May found that out to her cost when she called a snap election in 2017. Her campaign focused heavily on her own reputation, and she urged voters to “make me stronger” by increasing her slim majority to help get a Brexit deal through Parliament. 

Instead, voters weakened her. While Ms May enjoyed a strong lead at the outset of campaigning, her fortunes waned and she lost seats. In the run-up to the 2019 election, Mr Johnson mentioned his party seven times as often Mr Sunak does now, Bloomberg found. While Ms May mentioned her party during the losing 2017 campaign more than Mr Sunak does now, she did so less than a third as often as Mr Johnson. Bloomberg analysed posts on the personal X accounts of Mr Sunak and Mr Starmer between Oct 25, 2022, when the former took office following Ms Liz Truss’ disastrous seven-week term, and Aug 27.

Mr Starmer posted 657 times, while Mr Sunak made 848 posts. Mr Sunak’s posts on the feed of his office as British prime minister were not analysed, because they are less party-political. Over that period, Mr Sunak used the word “I” 530 times and Mr Starmer did so 236 times. The leaders mentioned their parties 20 times and 531 times respectively. For Mr Sunak, Bloomberg counted the use of the terms “Conservative” and “Tory”, and their plurals. Derivatives of “I”, such as “I’ve”, were tallied.

Mr Sunak started as he carried on: His first post as prime minister began with the word “I”. It took him more than six months to mention the Conservatives. Mr Starmer mentions the Conservatives more often than Mr Sunak does, Bloomberg found. This made sense because when Mr Sunak became premier, the conventional thinking was his “main problem is that the party he leads is toxically unpopular”, said Mr Adrian Drummond at polling company Opinium.

The Premier’s use of X echoes his previous actions during the Covid-19 pandemic, when as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he regularly highlighted government assistance to individuals and businesses using posts emblazoned with his own signature rather than the party logo. Bloomberg’s analysis also revealed that thematically, the economy is a top issue for both leaders, perhaps unsurprisingly given Britain’s months-long battle with soaring inflation and stagnant growth. Mr Sunak mentioned the topic on 129 occasions, while Mr Starmer did so 86 times.

Mr Sunak, has made five core pledges to voters, three of which are economic. He has promised to halve inflation, restore growth and cut debt as a proportion of gross domestic product. His other pledges – to get National Health Service (NHS) waiting lists down and stop asylum seekers reaching British shores via small boats are also reflected, with mentions of “NHS”, “migration” and related words among his top terms.  While the NHS also features prominently in Mr Starmer’s posts, small boats barely appear. The Labour leader’s main focus is energy.

High energy costs have helped fuel Britain’s cost-of-living crisis over the past year, with Mr Sunak’s government forced into subsidising domestic gas and power bills. Goals on reducing emissions also form a major part of Labour’s platform. Tax is another prominent subject of Mr Starmer’s tweets, after Mr Sunak presided over the highest tax burden in seven decades, providing a foil for Labour attacks. Posts by Mr Sunak and Mr Starmer also reveal an interesting divergence in how the two men refer to the country.

Mr Sunak refers to the United Kingdom about twice as much as he mentions “Britain” or “British”. Mr Starmer’s posts heavily favour “Britain”. This could be reflective of different concerns. Mr Sunak, as prime minister, is concerned about the country’s territorial integrity, which is threatened by Republicans in Northern Ireland and separatists in Scotland. Mr Starmer, meanwhile, will be mindful that his predecessor, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, was often portrayed by the Tories as unpatriotic because of his anti-monarchy views, opposition to nuclear weapons and criticisms of Nato. 

“The threat of the break-up of the United Kingdom could mean that Sunak wants to emphasise the United Kingdom more,” said Dr Eoin O’Malley, a politics lecturer at Dublin City University. “Britain’ strikes me as a word that is more patriotic and ‘UK’ more technical.” Whether Mr Sunak continues his strategy as the election draws closer is up in the air. Opinium’s Mr Drummond noted that like his party, the Premier’s ratings are now “quite bad as well”. For Mr Shoben, in Britain, “the party label is by far the biggest driver of people voting”. BLOOMBERG