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8 February 2023

Rishi Sunak, the man who isn’t there

As the Prime Minister dithers, his foes advance and Britain declines.

By Andrew Marr

So, one thing is becoming clear: it isn’t going to work. That is, the plan for a year or more of calm, competent, administrative politics to reassure the country about the Conservatives before the election. Rishi Sunak’s instinct after the fall of Liz Truss was right and respectable: end the madness, try to bring party and country together. But it’s going to fail; and not only for the most obvious reason, which is that the Tory party won’t let it work.

This isn’t about rival personalities – not yet, anyway. Truss’s recent largely unapologetic and quite unhinged 4,000-word essay in the Telegraph on “a very powerful economic establishment” – or, to put it more pithily, on economics – was impressive for its vim. But most Tory MPs accept that the tedious straitjacket of the real world cannot be discarded again. After her intervention there was eye-rolling, shrugging, no new rebellion.

Watch: Rishi Sunak “isn’t leading” on Brexit, Northern Ireland or human rights. Video by Phil Clarke-Hill

Nor is the Boris Johnson restoration project an immediate threat. A familiar stench will billow from the parliamentary Privileges Committee inquiry into Johnson and partygate. The motion to set it up was passed in April 2022; it has already gone on for a ludicrous amount of time. But public hearings are close. Even if he circumvents the inquiry, there is the affair of the £800,000 loan to think about. And, knowing our Bozza, the next one, too.

Johnson retains a force-of-nature personality and an emotional reach no one else on the Tory side matches; but the hurdles look too high and wide for even him to chunter over. Should, by some remarkable chance, he emerge from the other side, dishevelled, apologetic and technically cleared, then Sunak will have to think further about how to deal with him. The offer of the party chairmanship would be an interesting one.

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But no – it isn’t the likelihood of a putsch by one of his predecessors that will frustrate the Sunak strategy, but the plan itself. It assumed that the country could somehow come together on a policy of common sense that was beyond politics. It suggested that if a well-meaning boss was properly across the detail and worked very hard, there were technical clunk-click solutions to the problems facing Britain that sensible people would agree on: get inflation down, reassure the markets, secure the borders.

But we are still in the middle of ferocious post-Brexit politics, which insists that the Prime Minister, like everyone else, pick a side. Liz Truss’s political programme was catastrophic, and the damage it caused to ordinary families goes on. But her impatience with the consequences of low growth and what you might call more bluntly British failure was completely natural and is shared across the political spectrum.

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[See also: Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle won’t revive his political fortunes]

We are trapped in a world in which our economy is not producing the shared wealth to give us the lifestyle, public services, housing and security we think we deserve. Instead, we face the unravelling NHS, the waves of strikes, the boarded-up high-street shops, and a general air of dingy social dislocation you might call “Happy Valley Britain”. It isn’t surprising that revolutionaries of the left and right both dream of breaking out by resetting the rules entirely.

Truss has a tiny band of true believers. She makes her way around parliament as someone both in and outside her party, who proudly stalks through corridors of mockery. Her position is similar to Jeremy Corbyn’s.

The problem for mainstream politicians is that the world being addressed by these revolutionaries is indeed the world in which the rest of us live. You can reject radical market ideas and reject state socialist revolution, but you are still left with a struggling British economy, in which everything is, to use a technical term, a bit shit.

And the rest of Britain needs a plan that goes beyond waiting for inflation to come down and squeezing spending until it does. And that, unavoidably, means confronting Brexit.

It really does seem pretty binary: break free from the EU orbit; shred its accumulated mass of worker protection, food standards, and environmental and industrial regulations – more than 25,000 new laws since we left. Recover the vigour of the 1840s. Slash taxes.

Or, alternatively, accept that the raw power of the continental market bloc can’t be ignored and do what you can, short of joining it again, to keep trade with it flowing.

We know what the Tory right thinks and we know what Labour thinks. But on which side does Rishi Sunak sit? He was an early Brexiteer, and has California in his DNA. But his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, was a Remainer who, after the referendum result – which he accepted – suggested a second referendum on the terms of the exit deal, which might have allowed us to stay inside the single market.

Time has moved on but we are close to a new confrontation with the EU, both over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status and the separate matter of shredding the EU regulatory inheritance. In a pleasingly Gilbert and Sullivan touch, both the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform Bill) are stuck, squirming, in the crimson afterlife we call the House of Lords.

Will Sunak insist on the powers to override the Northern Ireland protocol his predecessor negotiated, whatever Joe Biden and the EU say? Will he go ahead with “sunsetting” EU regulations and creating a completely new British set of employment and environmental rights before 2024?

If the answer is yes to both of those, then we can expect a higher import tariff regime and further economic problems in the years ahead, and a broadly happy Tory right. If the answer is no, then our ability to attract investment and grow is enhanced, but the 1922 Committee may come for the Prime Minister.

Sunak has been deliberately trying to blur his position: for instance, Downing Street briefing the right that the PM might leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) to help crack down on migrants, and then reassuring leftish Tories that no, of course he wouldn’t. The idea, I suppose, is to keep everyone guessing – throw hard-liners a morsel of red meat in order to make them swallow a compromise on Northern Ireland, or whatever.

And this is the part that won’t work. The Conservative Party and the country need to know who Rishi Sunak is if he is going to be a successful leader. He can’t be both a Treasury-orthodoxy managerial politician and a Brexit radical. There are huge choices ahead. They can’t be ducked. And they will need to be properly explained.

When people complain about Sunak’s lack of a vision, this is what they mean – which way are we going as a country; and is he really up for a big economic fight with Brussels? Labour under Keir Starmer has picked its side. Rishi Sunak has gone submarine.

Why? Has the Prime Minister, on some level, lost his nerve about the brutality of this political choice? Does he really know who he is yet, as a political personality? Is he at least half captured by the Whitehall and Treasury establishment? This is what matters, not the Westminster chaff of reshuffles.

[See also: Another Rishi reshuffle won’t help him restore party discipline]

Sunak’s position isn’t helped by a misguided and failing media strategy. In pursuit of “quiet politics”, No 10 has avoided putting him and other senior ministers up for interview or public scrutiny, relying on staged factory visits and weird, bland social media clips instead. The result? His political opponents are shaping the narrative, day by day. If he has a message to get across, it isn’t reaching the national conversation.

Meanwhile, Downing Street is pursuing a double strategy of delay and diversion. The delays in the House of Lords are actually very useful for Sunak as he works behind the scenes for a breakthrough over Northern Ireland, knowing that “success” might be more politically lethal to him than failure.

Diversion comes from the ECHR briefings and policy over Channel boats and illegal migration. The Tory centre-left is already in pre-emptive revolt about it; Bob Neill, who chairs the Commons Justice Committee, told the Financial Times: “If Conservatives don’t believe in the rule of law, what do we believe in? Are we going to put ourselves in the same company as Russia and Belarus?”

But it is an obvious elephant trap for the Labour Party, which at some point is going to have to vote for radical changes to the law, or against them.

We are in a rumbling, ominous pre-Budget atmosphere on the big issues of growth, Europe and public spending. The Chancellor is under intense pressure to announce tax cuts at levels he has already said he cannot: the obvious dodge is for him to take his lead from Sunak’s time as Chancellor and announce tax cuts a year hence, before the election – tax cuts on tick.

But at the centre of politics there is now a Rishi-shaped hole. He is a diligent family man of rectitude and charm, who badly wants to win. But since reaching Downing Street he has barely said an urgent or surprising word.

His five priorities have been halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing the national debt, cutting waiting lists, and laws to stop small boats.

The first three amount to “don’t be mad”, the fourth is futile until the NHS pay crisis is resolved, and the final one, if it means a new row with the EU, may end up in conflict with growth. They could have been (and probably were) chosen by a focus group. But Britain’s dilemma is real, big, and not captured by a little list. Rishi Sunak is not in trouble because of the Tory rebels. He is in trouble because he isn’t leading.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s first 100 days, with Andrew Marr]

This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak