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1 February 2023

The hapless Mr Sunak

What the UK requires is a prime minister who can lead and inspire; what it has is a vacuous management consultant.

By New Statesman

What is the point of Rishi Sunak? He became prime minister last October and presented himself as a competent technocrat who would ensure his government had “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. It did not take long for this banal promise to unravel.

The sacking of the Conservative Party chairman Nadhim Zahawi, who breached the ministerial code seven times, only raises the question of why Mr Sunak believed it was wise to appoint this Boris Johnson stooge in the first place. Mr Zahawi’s opaque tax affairs, which led him to reportedly pay a £1m penalty to HMRC, first ­attracted scrutiny during last summer’s Conservative leadership contest. But he was still appointed to the cabinet by the Prime Minister in October.

Downing Street’s line is that Mr Sunak was not informed of the details of Mr Zahawi’s case “informally or otherwise” – a claim others inside the government dispute. But whatever the truth, neither possibility is palatable: Mr Sunak was either incurious then or deceitful now.

This is far from the first time that the Prime Minister’s poor judgement has been exposed. During his time as chancellor, his wife, Akshata Murty, the daughter of an Indian billionaire, was revealed to have claimed non-domiciled status. This allowed her to avoid UK tax on her foreign earnings. Mr Sunak, meanwhile, retained a US green card until 2021, which required him to file annual American tax returns.

When he became prime minister Mr Sunak appointed Dominic Raab as his deputy, who is now under investigation over multiple bullying allegations. Mr Raab’s troubles cannot be dismissed as the product of a few oversensitive civil servants. The former Foreign Office permanent under-secretary Simon McDonald revealed last year that Mr Raab was “as abrasive and controlling with junior ministers and senior officials as he was with his private secretaries”.

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There is the also the case of Gavin Williamson, an inept education secretary who was elevated to the cabinet by Mr Sunak in an act of shameless favouritism. Mr Williamson was forced out of cabinet for a third time after he sent a series of expletive-laden messages to the former Tory chief whip Wendy Morton.

Mr Sunak’s government lacks not only probity but direction. Britain has serious problems: a stagnant economy, falling living standards and overwhelmed public services. It is the only major state forecast by the IMF to suffer a recession this year. Yet Mr Sunak offers only managed or, increasingly, unmanaged decline.

At a Conservative Party policy meeting, Margaret Thatcher once reputedly thumped a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on a table and declared: “This is what we believe in.”

What does Mr Sunak believe in? He favours a free-market, low-tax economy but, to the dismay of his party, intends to raise the tax burden to its highest level since the 1940s. Mr Sunak insists that tax cuts must be delayed until inflation has been reduced; his rebellious backbenchers demand action to power growth. Both sides ignore the truth: tax cuts are not the panacea they think. Britain’s biggest problem is not an excess of taxation but a dearth of investment. Only Italy spends less on research and development among the G7 countries and business investment remains below its pre-Brexit 2016 level.

There is a case for income tax cuts for the lower-paid when inflation is at 10.5 per cent. But too few Conservative MPs accept the corollary: that taxes on the wealthy and static assets must rise if the UK is to have a more resilient tax base.

For now, Mr Sunak is merely a cluster of contradictions: a tax-cutter who won’t cut tax; a Brexiteer who can’t explain what Brexit is for; a technocratic manager who can’t manage. He often seems most animated when championing the obscure cause of free ports – another libertarian project without purpose.

What the United Kingdom requires is a prime minister who can lead and inspire; what it has is a vacuous management consultant who cannot find a voice in which to speak to and for the country. As Mr Sunak’s approval ratings plummet, the electorate shows every sign of preparing to evict him. But that day could be nearly two years away: Britain deserves better now.

[See also: Will Dominic Raab be the next cabinet minister to go?]

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con