Although Rishi Sunak does not drink alcohol, he is not free of vices. One is Mexican Coca-Cola, which is made with cane sugar rather than fructose syrup. Another is a love of gadgets. One Treasury official told me recently that the best way to pull the Chancellor off course in meetings is if someone has bought along a new smart device, such as the £180 temperature-controlled mug he was photographed with last year.
Sunak is fascinated by the technology of the future and the opportunities it brings. The Chancellor has been a committed Eurosceptic since his teenage years, partly because he believed that leaving the European Union would allow the United Kingdom to thrive in the 21st century. Yet while he likes to surround himself with the latest kit, he is, politically, a rather old-fashioned Conservative who would fit more comfortably in the David Cameron era. That puts him in awkward company in Boris Johnson’s post-Brexit cabinet of culture warriors.
Nadine Dorries, the new Culture Secretary, told a conference fringe event in Manchester on 4 October that her priority was making sure there is a path to success for aspiring actors who want to be the next Benedict Cumberbatch “but [didn’t] go to private school”. Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, has reportedly argued in cabinet that road hauliers should pay lorry drivers higher wages to resolve the supply chain crunch. And Johnson himself has taken a radically different approach to Conservatism, pledging to invest in northern England’s former industrial heartlands – which backed his party in 2019 – instead of feathering the already soft nests of traditional Tory voters in the south of England.
When he took the stage to deliver his keynote speech in Manchester, however, Sunak did not mention levelling up once. Instead of pursuing culture wars, he made an impassioned argument against the politics of division. Less than a month from the Cop26 world environment summit, which the Prime Minister is hosting, the word “climate” did not appear at all. The central pillars of Johnson’s plan for Britain were apparently not top of the agenda for the Chancellor. The sense of a gulf opening up between Johnson and Sunak is risky for both men, and for their party.
Conservative MPs chose Johnson as their leader because he is a winner. His promise to voters to be a different kind of Tory is valuable to his party for two reasons. First, it represents a direct policy concession to the party’s new supporters in Labour’s former Red Wall, and second, it symbolises the Conservatives’ ability to renew themselves in office. One veteran Tory pointed out that, thanks to Johnson, although the party has been in power as long as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives had been in 1990 and New Labour had been in 2008, it feels fresh and re-energised. After 11 years in office, both Gordon Brown’s Labour and Thatcher’s Tories were in desperate need of political resuscitation.
[see also: Boris Johnson’s “f*** business” approach to the supply chain crisis is a risk for Brexit Britain]
Yet Sunak’s approach is markedly different. In fact, his offer to the party faithful in Manchester made the case for hard choices and fiscal responsibility, harking back to the coalition government and the austerity Budgets of George Osborne. He even praised his predecessors for keeping faith with the foundations of traditional Conservative economic policy. As one Cameron loyalist noted to me: “That was the only speech here that could have been given back in our day.”
Sunak’s defence of the party’s cuts to Universal Credit is also a direct echo of arguments made by Osborne: that the Conservatives believe in balanced budgets and keeping the welfare bill low, while Labour can’t be trusted on the economy. It is a line of attack that has worked for the Tories before, when Cameron pressed Labour’s bruise at every opportunity before the 2015 election, brandishing the infamous note by Liam Byrne, chief secretary to the Treasury under Gordon Brown, in which he apologised to the incoming government for there being “no money” left.
But Sunak had another target in mind: his own colleagues. Backbenchers – and indeed the Prime Minister – often support fiscal restraint in theory but oppose it in practice. The party is nervous about the impact of the cost-of-living squeeze on Tory voters, especially with Treasury-driven welfare cuts and tax rises about to bite. This crisis was a dominant theme in discussions in the bars, fringe meetings and drinks receptions in Manchester. MPs and party officials fear it could take a long time to fix the supply chain problems without relying on immigration.
This is all likely to lead to pressure being put on the Chancellor to pull consumer-friendly rabbits from his hat when he delivers a Budget and spending review on 27 October. To use a Cameron-era phrase, Sunak may be “rolling the pitch” for a Budget that disappoints the Johnsonian Tories of 2021 but which would have worked fine for Osborne a decade earlier.
Johnson and Sunak have a lot of talking to do before the spending review is agreed. How they close the ten-year lag separating their political outlooks might prove to be the defining question for the Tories in the run-up to the next election. If Sunak gets his way, a return to austerity – or at least to fiscal conservatism – would put the party on a path to repeat its election campaigns of 2015 or 2017. The Chancellor’s gamble is that he won’t end up being blamed if the result of those elections takes the Tories backwards, too.
[see also: What does the decline of Priti Patel tell us about the Tory party’s future?]
This article appears in the 06 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Unsafe Places