In the period between spring 2017, when Theresa May called an unnecessary election and promptly lost her majority, and summer 2019, when she finally lost her job, the then prime minister got into a strange habit. Every few weeks, when her Brexit strategy hit yet another roadblock, word would go round that May was to make an intervention. The lectern would come out, rolling news crews would cut to footage of the closed door of 10 Downing Street, and everyone in the bubble would collectively hold their breath. A change of strategy? A resignation? Another snap election? What could we glean, from the choice or position of the lectern? What did it mean?
Then finally, perhaps 45 minutes later than we’d been promised, May would appear and read an extremely short statement to the effect that nothing whatsoever had changed and she would be continuing on exactly as before. And, like Charlie Brown going to kick a football, we would fall for it every time. For this political equivalent of a meeting that could have been an email, the entire politico-media complex would have cancelled its evening plans (which did wonders for May’s write-ups in the papers, I’m sure). More than once in this period I received a bollocking from a New Statesman colleague on the grounds that my increasingly hysterical questions about what was wrong with May were demotivating to everyone else in the WhatsApp group.
If all this got me in trouble, it failed to get May out of it. The intent, we inferred, was to rally the public behind her and thus increase pressure on her colleagues to bend to her will. But most of the public were not watching rolling news at 10pm on a Tuesday night. These statements made no attempt to grapple with the question of what might actually bring more MPs around to supporting her Brexit deal or why, indeed, she had just lost her majority. So May’s very need to say that nothing had changed became a sign that something had. By attempting to assert her authority, she showed that it was draining away.
On an entirely unrelated matter, May’s successor-but-two, Rishi Sunak, called a press conference this week in an attempt to assert his authority. He’s desperate to pass the Rwanda Bill, which will facilitate the plan to deport refugees to the east African country by simply declaring it safe, in much the same way one might legislate that rain is now classed as “dry”. One chunk of his party is threatening to vote against the bill on the grounds that it comes unnervingly close to abandoning Britain’s commitment to international law; another is threatening to vote against it on the grounds that it does not, in fact, come close enough.
The latter faction includes Robert Jenrick, at one time one of Sunak’s closest political allies, who quit as immigration minister on Wednesday for roughly the same reason that rats leave sinking ships. Even funnier, the former faction has the support of the Rwandan government, which now says it couldn’t possibly take refugees from any country that would abandon international law – just so that it can send them somewhere where their safety can’t be guaranteed. Most hilarious of all is that the price of sending no refugees to Africa is reported to be approaching £300m. Who said the Tories no longer support international aid?
The response from Sunak, like May before him, has been to attempt to bypass his MPs by appealing directly to the public. But this didn’t work for May, who could at least argue that the Brexit referendum amounted to a mandate to pursue Brexit (even if it was not necessarily a mandate for her Brexit and she had voted Remain). So it’s hard to see why it should work from Sunak, the source of whose authority is, to be charitable, unclear. The Rwanda plan was not in the Tories’ 2019 manifesto (so ramming it through the House of Lords is not an option , even if there were time left in this parliament, which there isn’t); Sunak can point to electoral support from neither the voters nor his party’s own members; and the public doesn’t much like the policy anyway. What you are left with is a man simply whining that the world won’t do what he wants.
It’s easy to imagine power as mechanistic, something which flows automatically from possession of title or position. It isn’t: it’s an illusion, a parlour trick, in which leaders have power because we imagine that they do, and expect the world to act accordingly.
Rishi Sunak doesn’t have it. The polls and increasingly visible corporate interest in Labour have long suggested as much; Jenrick’s decision to abandon ship confirms it. The Prime Minister seems genuinely not to have noticed that his refusal to turn the Rwanda Bill into a confidence vote is an extremely loud signal that he knows he would lose.
From this narrow perspective, at least, whether the Tory party rolls the dice by picking a fourth leader in a single term, whether we have an unexpected election in the spring or keep stumbling on for another year, hardly seems to matter: Rishi Sunak’s premiership is already over. When a prime minister announces to the nation that they’re still in control, the one thing you can be sure of is that they are not.
[See also: The Tory right is at war with reality]