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8 July 2023

Has Rishi Sunak finally learned that life is unfair?

The Prime Minister’s clocked that hard work isn’t everything. But why is he telling us?

By Jonn Elledge

There are many things in life and politics that might quite reasonably be classed as unfair. Your income collapsing and living costs spiking through decisions taken by the clown parade passing through the revolving door of Downing Street. All the costs of the benefits aimed at one generation being loaded, repeatedly, onto another. Your job, or your entire industry, vanishing one day because of Brexit. These are of course just the first-world and middle-class variants; others are available.

Even so, it’s another, rather less obvious victim of unfairness that government sources are, as ever, concerned with. Last weekend Tim Shipman, chief political commentator for the Sunday Times, dutifully reported that Rishi Sunak had been seen doing the rounds at one of those interminable summer parties that Westminster forces on its occupants at this time of year. “The Prime Minister’s arrival ought to have generated excitement and optimism,” Shipman noted. “Instead he worked the room in a desultory way, thanking people for their support but appearing tired and irritable.”

Irritability is of course hardly an unusual look on Sunak, who in interviews and at Prime Minister’s Questions has a habit of seeming perplexed and baffled whenever faced with a question that isn’t of the “why are you so dreamy” variety. This was particularly a problem during last summer’s Conservative leadership contest, when many of those asking those questions were women, giving Sunak the air of a head boy who sincerely believed it was a mistake for his school to have gone co-ed. And while the air of unselfconscious sexism this communicated probably wasn’t why he initially lost to the political colossus that is Liz Truss, it surely can’t have helped.

But in Shipman’s telling, it’s no longer simply girls that Sunak is irritable towards, but the universe itself. The Prime Minister’s entire career – “at Winchester, Oxford, Stanford, Goldman Sachs and McKinsey” – has apparently taught him that “if he worked hard and solved problems, he would succeed”. There he is, working hard, doing everything he’s supposed to; yet Boris Johnson continues, somehow, to dominate the news cycle, the five apparently easy problems the Prime Minister promised to solve remain stubbornly insoluble, and the voters continue to look at the Conservative Party in roughly the manner Rishi Sunak looks at Sophie Raworth whenever she poses a tough question. As one unnamed cabinet minister told Shipman, Sunak has always believed that “if you work hard and do the right thing, the universe will reward you – and in his mind at the moment the universe is not keeping its side of the bargain”. Come on universe, up your game.

It must be difficult to fail, when everything else you have ever done – education, career, politics, marriage – has been such a success. It must be unsettling to learn for the first time that, however hard you try – however rich you are – there will always be things that you simply can’t control. Sunak, to give him his due, has taken the job of governing a whole lot more seriously than the people who preceded him: whatever my problems with the man and his politics, it does feel unfair that a chancer like Johnson got three years in office and a sizeable election victory, while Sunak should get this. But sometimes, however hard you work, however virtuous you think you are, the universe doesn’t care. You can lose that house, or watch your industry collapse. The person you love can die. Life isn’t always fair.

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The interesting thing about Sunak is not that he doesn’t know this: after the charmed life he’d led, why should he? The interesting thing is that he thinks it’ll help him to tell the papers. Whether this week’s anonymous cabinet minister is speaking with his permission or not we can’t be sure, but the Prime Minister has certainly supported this kind of briefing in the past. Last year, when he was chancellor, he was so upset by the way coverage of his Budget had focused not on all the lovely things he had done, but on the complete lack of help for those at the bottom of the income scale, that the press relayed his displeasure with both BBC and Office for Budget Responsibility. Around the same time he went so far as to let it be known that, if everyone didn’t stop being so beastly with him, he’d quit politics altogether and move to California, and then we’d be sorry. We have surely all, in our time, felt an embarrassing adolescent urge to whine “It’s not faaaaaair” about our misfortunes. Few of us have had the opportunity to brief newspapers to that effect, and even fewer, I’d guess, would have imagined that doing so would make us look good.

Still, if all this opens up the space to have a full discussion about the things in life and politics which genuinely are unfair, then all the better. Perhaps we can start with the economic cards dealt to those low earners.

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

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