Prime ministers are often caught out by the fearsome cabal of senior MPs who sit on parliament’s so-called super committee. But today a low-energy Rishi Sunak made it through 90 minutes of grilling by the Commons’ Liaison Committee without gifting journalists a major news line.
Asked about child poverty, whether China was a threat to the UK, Covid fraud, the rise in homelessness among Ukrainian refugees and, of course, NHS strikes, the PM was determined to be as boring as possible. He methodically delivered responses on the multiple crises facing the country as though reading from a No 10 press release. And his strategists will probably record this as a significant achievement.
Since entering Downing Street in October, Sunak’s priority has been to bring calm where chaos has prevailed. The reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, just days after she resigned having broken the ministerial code, and Gavin Williamson, who was later forced to quit over bullying allegations, shows he hasn’t always succeeded in that aim.
But today’s committee appearance and the trend towards fewer briefings and media interviews proves that Sunak sees being somewhat dull as a strength. A new leader usually delivers an immediate poll bounce for their party and Sunak’s critics point out that he has failed to significantly improve the Tories’ fortunes (Labour retains a poll lead of around 20 points). But being a seemingly dull and reliable leader did Keir Starmer no harm as he revived Labour’s fortunes in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s departure.
Boris Johnson’s modus operandi when faced with criticism was to dominate the news agenda and whip up division with increasingly outlandish briefings from No 10 sources. It was one of the reasons why he was so frequently compared with Donald Trump. But it now seems that both Sunak and Starmer recognise that less is sometimes more.