A mug’s game: the politics of Rishi Sunak’s crockery choices | Rishi Sunak

Rishi Sunak appeared on his Instagram feed on Tuesday morning holding a mug emblazoned with the St George’s flag. “Perfect way to start the day,” was the caption: “Happy St George’s Day!”

It is not the only time the prime minister has raised a symbolic piece of teaware. On the same day he appeared en route to Warsaw holding a white mug marked only with the number “10”, presumably a reference to his current home address. Last year one enveloped in a union jack print was his choice for a trip to a Nato summit in Lithuania. Personal branding clearly pays no mind to international airspace.

Home comforts … Rishi Sunak speaking to journalists on a plane with his house number mug. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

On other occasions, Sunak has been photographed with a gamut of branded company mugs, from a Selco one on a visit to a builders’ warehouse in London to a National Gas mug on a visit to the Bacton terminals in Norfolk.

What is Sunak saying with these mugs? Because even on site visits, it is a deliberate choice to leave in frame a hot drink receptacle.

“There is an imperative to signal that he is somewhat normal,” says the political journalist, and political mug collector, Stephen Bush, whose most recent acquisition was the “In Liz we Truss” mug that remained very much in stock at the end of the Tory party conference in 2022. “He’s signalling he’s an everyday person by doing something people do every day.”

Dog days … Sunak with his ‘squarely middle-class’ Emma Bridgewater labrador mug. Photograph: Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street

Mugs are also, says Bush, a relatively low-key way of signalling patriotism where an outright flag “would be quite try-hard”. “They’re a good way of being like: ‘Oh yeah, look, I’m a normal guy. I love this country. Look at me drinking from my normal guy cup.’”

Sunak’s mugs have shifted tone. Last year the half-pint mug on his desk, alongside a celebratory slice of cake to mark one year in office, depicted five interlocked red Labradors; the work of the squarely middle-class brand Emma Bridgewater. As chancellor in 2020 it was a tech-bro-ish £180 smart mug that can set an exact drinking temperature.

No mug … Blair pioneers the casual premiership style with a dog charity mug. Photograph: Alamy

Bush thinks he is now trying to signal he is both more “everyman” and, “crucially, more manly”. His newer mugs are perhaps the crockery equivalent of the Timberland boots he wore to call for small-boat crossings of the Channel to be stopped.

He wasn’t the first politician to mobilise teaware. Tony Blair was regularly pictured with a mug, using his casual appearance sipping from it to semaphore the sort of modernising tendencies upon which New Labour set out its stall. Bush notes that before the Blair years, in pictures of politicians meeting in Downing Street, everyone would be using cups and saucers. The mug, he says, was “part of a visual language of early New Labour … we’re modern and we’re different”.

And mugs have long been the site of political slogans and campaigning – almost everyone uses them and it’s a low-stakes way of signalling allegiance. That doesn’t mean they always hit the mark. In 2015, Ed Miliband’s Labour released one promising “Controls on immigration”, which Bush wrote was “condemned as unspeakably naff at best and outright racist at worst”. He collected it as a “great physical reminder of the problems of that election campaign”.

For most British politicians, the idea that even their most ardent supporters would wear a T-shirt declaring that support is a pipe dream – “Tony Blair in 1999 is maybe the last time that you might have been able to wear a T-shirt with a British politician on it without a derogatory slogan and still pull,” says Bush – a mug is a less full-throated mouthpiece.

Boris Johnson is one former prime minister who knows what’s at stake with the wrong mug, having had a single-use plastic one snatched out of his hand by an aide worried about the optics at the Tory party conference in 2019. Michael Gove finally switched to reusables for his walks into Downing Street in 2019, remarkably late for a then-environment secretary supposedly waging war on plastic.

In most cases it is impossible to tell what Sunak’s mug holds, unless he helpfully captions it, as he did on a trip to meet Ben Bradley MP in November last year, saying: “Met up for a cuppa in Worksop yesterday. We both agree that when the East Midlands succeeds, the whole country succeeds”. Tea feels like a safe assumption.

A collector’s item. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

“Tea itself carries a message of bringing people together, calming everybody down,” says the tea expert Jane Pettigrew, who points out that it contains L-theanine, “an amino acid, which actually calms us and de-stresses us”. It is “very much a drink of the people” and, with an election on the horizon,” she says, “he’s trying to win the public vote”.

How could Sunak better leverage the power of the mug to win the heart of the nation? Considering the polls, Bush thinks he would be better off going back to Emma Bridgewater, instead of “trying to convince us all that he’s like some kind of gritty man of the people who uses the word ‘cuppa’”.

Rishi Sunak made a social media appearance on Tuesday morning, showcasing a mug adorned with the St George’s flag on his Instagram feed. The caption read, “Perfect way to start the day, Happy St George’s Day!” This isn’t the first time the prime minister has been seen with symbolic teaware. On the same day, he was pictured en route to Warsaw holding a plain white mug with the number “10” on it, likely a reference to his home address. Last year, he opted for a union jack print mug during a visit to a Nato summit in Lithuania. It seems personal branding doesn’t stop at international borders.

Sunak has been spotted with various branded mugs, from a Selco mug during a visit to a builders’ warehouse in London to a National Gas mug at the Bacton terminals in Norfolk. What message is Sunak trying to convey with these mugs? It seems to be a deliberate choice to keep a hot drink receptacle in the frame, signaling his relatability.

According to political journalist Stephen Bush, the use of mugs is a way for Sunak to show that he is just like an everyday person, doing something that people do on a daily basis. It’s a subtle way of signaling patriotism without being too overt. The choice of mugs has evolved over time, with Sunak now aiming to appear more “everyman” and masculine.

Mugs have become a common site for political messaging, with slogans and branding being used as a low-stakes way of showing allegiance. For Sunak, the mug seems to be a way of connecting with the public, especially with an election on the horizon.

In the realm of political mugs, Sunak might benefit from returning to the more middle-class brand Emma Bridgewater, rather than trying to portray himself as a rugged man of the people. Ultimately, the mug serves as a simple yet effective tool for political communication and connection with the public.