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11 July 2023

What is the point of Rishi Sunak?

This zombie government is clinging to power simply for its own sake.

By Martin Fletcher

The cost-of-living crisis rages on, consigning millions to poverty. The NHS remains in intensive care. Public services continue to deteriorate. Britain’s commitment to net zero grows steadily weaker. Untreated sewage still pours into our rivers and coastal waters. Our once-proud car industry is slowly collapsing.

Can we really go on like this for another 15 months or more? Can Britain survive another year or 18 months of drift and inertia under Rishi Sunak’s zombie government? For this is now a government without a mission, devoid of purpose or direction.

It no longer dares speak of Brexit, the issue on which the Conservatives won the last general election four years ago; the price of quitting the European Union has become painfully apparent, and the benefits are nowhere to be seen. 

Levelling up, which Johnson called the central project of his government, has been all but forgotten: Michael Gove, the so-called Levelling-Up Secretary, seems more interested in boosting Cambridge

According to the government’s own advisers the UK has squandered its position as a global leader on climate action, and is falling short of almost all its goals for achieving net zero. Housebuilding targets, and the relaxation of planning regulations, have been abandoned in the face of internal Conservative opposition.

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Sunak talks of turning Britain into a “science and technology superpower” by 2030. He unveils plans to recruit 300,000 new doctors and nurses in England. He vows to lead a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability”. But the public long ago ceased to believe the grandiose promises of floundering Tory prime ministers.

What is the point of this government? The closest thing it has to a genuine action plan are Sunak’s “five pledges” – to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce the national debt, cut NHS waiting lists and stop small boat crossings.

[See also: Rishi Sunak should take on the immigration fantasists]

But those pledges hardly amount to a programme for government, or a vision of where Sunak wants to lead the country. They are what any self-respecting government should seek to do as a matter of course. They are, for this administration, a damage limitation exercise, and even by these narrow measures our industrious but overwhelmed Prime Minister is manifestly failing.

Inflation remains stubbornly high despite interest rates reaching 5 per cent (the highest level since April 2008). The economy is stagnant. Debt now exceeds 100 per cent of GDP for the first time since 1961. A record 7.4 million people are waiting for NHS treatment. As for small boats, Sunak knows full well that his plan to stop them by sending their occupants to Rwanda is unworkable, immoral, exorbitantly expensive and borderline illegal, but he pursues it simply as a wedge issue to make Labour look soft.

Sunak had no popular mandate to begin with: he was chosen to succeed Liz Truss last October not by the country but by his fellow Tory MPs. Whatever residual public support he enjoyed when he took over in the wake of Truss’s ideological lunacy and Boris Johnson’s shambolic venality has long since dissipated.

His party now trails Labour by a remarkable 20 percentage points in the polls, and the gap is, if anything, widening. Hammered in recent by-elections, the Tories look likely to be routed in three more on 20 July. Sunak’s own approval rating has fallen from 48 per cent eight months ago to a paltry 28 per cent now, while even among Conservative members he now has a negative net approval rating (-2.7).

Even within the dispirited Conservative parliamentary party the Prime Minister appears to enjoy only lukewarm support. Many Tory MPs still resent Sunak’s perceived betrayal of Johnson. No less than 40 have already announced that they will not stand again at the next election, with more likely to follow and others deciding to fight their seats simply so they can claim their loss-of-office payments. A handful – Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries, Lee Anderson – have found alternative employment as television presenters. Semi-mutinous campaign groups proliferate, while Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, is already manoeuvring quite brazenly to succeed him.

Sunak is too weak to discipline the rebels, or to confront his party’s right-wing zealots, just as he was too weak to vote for the Privileges Committee’s report censuring Johnson for lying to parliament over partygate. Equally, he is too weak to offer the leadership that Britain so desperately needs. To the extent that anyone is providing the ideas and policies required to rebuild our broken country it is Keir Starmer’s Labour Party.

The truth is plain to see. After 13 years in power, and having run through five wildly divergent prime ministers, the Conservatives are a spent force – exhausted, divided, discredited and directionless. They have nothing left to offer. They cling to power simply for its own sake, not to seek to change the country for the better.

By law Sunak need not call another general election until January 2025. That is 18 months away, and Britain can’t afford to wait that long. If the Prime Minister meant what he said when he unveiled his five pledges last January (“we will either have achieved them or not. No tricks… no ambiguity… we’re either delivering for you or not”), if he and the self-styled patriots of the Conservative Party really care about Britain’s future and still believe in “the will of the people”, he should – but won’t – call an election this autumn.

[See also: Has Rishi Sunak finally learned that life is unfair?]

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