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27 October 2022

Rishi Sunak has made a dangerous bargain with the populist right

The Prime Minister’s quest to restore prosperity will be undermined by his stance on Brexit and immigration.

By David Gauke

The Conservative Party made the right choice. For those who want the party to demonstrate economic responsibility (whether because they wish the Tories well or because they do not want the UK economy to crash in the immediate future), the coronation of Rishi Sunak was one of the more welcome developments in British politics for some time.

In my previous column, contrary to my general sense of gloom about my former party, I tentatively suggested that Sunak would triumph. For a moment I had my doubts as it looked likely that Boris Johnson would have the support of a significant minority of the Conservative parliamentary party, but his boasts of support quickly sounded hollow. The contest was over in four days.  

At one level, Sunak has been the heir apparent since he rose to the occasion as chancellor in the early days of the pandemic. He was a reassuring presence – articulate, on top of his brief, willing to be pragmatic and imaginative. Reliable judges of character who knew him well were quick to praise his qualities.

For all of this, the Conservative Party did not take him to its heart. When Johnson ran into difficulties in the autumn of 2021 the prime minister’s supporters argued that there was no natural successor. Sunak was too green, too smooth, too willing to spend money (either because of the pandemic or at Johnson’s behest) and then too willing to raise taxes. He then had the spring from hell where almost everything went wrong for him – his wife’s tax affairs, his green card, an underwhelming spring statement and a police fine for attending a lockdown party. He looked finished.

The speed with which he re-emerged as a player following his resignation as chancellor demonstrated that many of his parliamentary colleagues continued to rate him highly. His resignation sent the message that he would be a break from the Johnson years in terms of integrity. MPs liked it, the party members did not. He was by far the strongest leadership candidate but came second, warning that the Truss strategy would lead to disaster. He was quickly vindicated.

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So the Conservative Party got to the right place having tried every other option. It is a big step in the right direction. Sunak has a broader-based and more talented cabinet, he is speaking with candour about the economic situation the country faces, he is engaging with the devolved administrations in a more adult way, and he has helped to restore confidence in the markets. So far, so encouraging. Some notes of caution, however, are necessary.

Sunak, for all his intelligence and pragmatism, supported Brexit. This was not unusual for a Conservative MP but was unusual for one so capable. He also flirted with the Great Barrington Declaration view of Covid-19 in autumn 2020 and contributed to delaying a necessary second lockdown. He has to be marked down on both counts.

He has much greater economic understanding than his recent predecessors and will pursue fiscal policies based on realism not fantasy, but there appears to be a grand bargain in place with the right of the party: in exchange for him being allowed to do that, the government will maintain a staunchly conservative position on some issues that could be described as “cultural”. Kemi Badenoch gets the equalities brief, Steve Baker is reassured about the Northern Ireland Protocol, and Suella Braverman returns to the Home Office.

This last appointment is troublesome. Braverman resigned as Home Secretary a week ago for breaching the ministerial code (breaching it multiple times, says the former Conservative chairman Jake Berry) but the underlying cause was a row over immigration policy. Truss wanted to prioritise growth, Braverman lower immigration. By reinstalling her in the Home Office, Sunak is making it much harder to strengthen the economy.

A similar point can be made about EU relations. Sunak will not want a trade war over the Northern Ireland Protocol but he has a party management challenge. Settle for less than the terms demanded by the European Research Group and he will be accused of selling out. Dig in and he risks more economic harm.

Sunak’s problem is that it is not possible to simply separate issues into “economic” and “cultural” categories. Cultural issues such as immigration and Brexit quickly become economic issues. If Sunak’s mission is to restore our prosperity, signing up to cultural conservatism means he is fighting with one hand tied behind his back.

There is one other observation to be made about Sunak’s ascendancy. Despite being the most capable candidate with the requisite experience, he has been very fortunate to make it to the top. It is only because a vacancy emerged quite so quickly and that it had to be filled immediately that we ended up with such an expedited process. He was also fortunate that Johnson absorbed the support of the right before abandoning his campaign. Without that, it is just possible that a candidate of the right might have made it onto the members’ ballot paper and won.

The Conservatives have not turned their backs on the populist right. For liberal Conservatives, Sunak’s victory – welcome that it is – may be as good as it gets. 

[See also: The fall of Liz Truss will not bring calm but rather a new period of conflict]

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