The Conservative Party needs a saviour. So does Whitehall. So do I. So does the country. That need, so far, survives the Prime Minister, whose occupancy of No 10 has left the party on course to win the fewest seats in any general election since the party was founded in 1834.
The task ahead of Rishi Sunak was admittedly daunting. The splits between Tory MPs from the Brexit wars have calcified into niche but no less bitter factions. On the steps of Downing Street, Sunak promised to magic “integrity, professionalism and accountability” out of a party which has scandal embedded in it like limescale. Indeed, the atmosphere is so bad that some MPs now joke that they oppose the government out of a bored nostalgia for the historic votes on Brexit.
Meanwhile, his predecessors peacock around waiting for his downfall and their resurrection. The party’s reputation for shepherding the economy – his specialist subject, no less – was ruined by Liz Truss’s blinkered mini-Budget. And that was the only reason he got the job.
But Sunak’s performance over the past three months will leave many paid-up supporters of the Conservative Party with some justifiable questions. A pattern has emerged of Sunak walking into political danger. The first time doubts arose about the then chancellor’s political tact was when his wife’s non-dom tax status was exposed in April last year. He dismissed the matter with an appeal to privacy. Days later she inevitably renounced the status, the damage already done.
He continues to make the same mistakes over Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs. Three days before Zahawi effectively confirmed he’d paid a fine to HMRC, Sunak arose in the House of Commons chamber and said the matter was resolved. He didn’t foresee the danger ahead.
Partly because of his poor political nous, Sunak’s grip over the party is weak. Some of his MPs mutter that he lacks a mandate because he never won a vote with the membership. Others are positioning themselves for the next leadership contest (Boris Johnson’s ally Jake Berry is a name that’s cropped up). Such disunity has prompted doubts about Sunak’s survival.
But there’s a deeper problem for Sunak: he’s an administrator not a politician. In a recent party political broadcast he said he “was brought in to fix” the challenges facing the country. That’s the language of an emergency chief executive appointed by the board, not a prime minister with a 69-seat majority. He makes himself sound temporary. As one senior Tory MP put it to me: “we’ve had a difficult journey since the summer. He now needs to bring out the big ideas”.
It’s increasingly likely that constrained by his decision not to raise taxes and with less than two years until the next election Sunak won’t be announcing any big ideas. I asked a cabinet minister recently what Sunak would do if he could do anything. “Good and godly government,” came the reply.
Jeremy Hunt will be prepping some rabbits for the upcoming Budget in March, no doubt. Much as the strategy for the Autumn Statement was to ready the ground for cuts, only to delay them until after the next election, we can expect some surprises. But it seems likely that any new policy would only extend to tinkering around with fuel duty or capital allowances.
All of which leaves a vacuum that his back benches are filling with a clamour for tax cuts – and that’s an argument which Sunak doesn’t seem well-suited to have. “You’re not idiots, you know what’s happened,” was how he responded when asked in Morecombe last month why he won’t cut taxes. Labelling those who want tax cuts – including a large contingent of his own MPs – “idiots” won’t help him. He forgets that the point of politics is that there are different answers to the same problems.
Rishi Sunak’s 100th day in office is much like the first. The party remains divided over which lever of fiscal policy (taxes, spending and debt) they want to pull. The economy is struggling. Alternative candidates are positioning for the top job. In his first 100 days, Rishi Sunak has not been his party’s saviour – nor does he look set to be in the next.