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8 March 2023

Rishi Sunak is moving at speed – but can he outpace the spectre of Boris Johnson?

This spring’s prime ministerial activity has a frantic velocity we haven’t seen since the days of New Labour.

By Andrew Marr

Politics is not a reasonable science: it’s a hot, murky, passionate struggle, a slimy grapple for power. Some politicians – Boris Johnson – understand this in their bowels. Others – Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer – don’t. The original sin of the centrist is to assume that there is a rational point of balance, what you might call the ballast of the sensible – and that political life naturally bends towards it. Not so.

Rishi Sunak is running hard. He has thrown himself into the Northern Ireland protocol problem and, sensible people would agree, resolved it rather brilliantly. He is now racing towards a settlement on the small-boats problem, proposing a harsh-sounding law that would impel illegal migrants out of the country swiftly. After that, perhaps, he will get stuck in to the Budget, the NHS strikes and the mayhem in hospitals.

This spring’s prime ministerial activity has a frantic velocity we haven’t really seen since the days of New Labour. It may work. It may not. The politics of “small boats”, for instance, is almost opposite to the politics of the Windsor framework. Immigration is rising in polling as a public concern and, whereas a Northern Ireland deal was a tilt in the direction of the sensible centre, on small boats Sunak needs to sharpen the difference between the parties. The more centrist outrage, the more liberal bile, the better for Sunak: he needs the applause of those Tories most nervous about his negotiation with the EU.

Resolving the nurses’ strikes, too, will be hard. Under increasing pressure to cut taxes, it’s hard to see where the Treasury is going to find enough money, though I’m told the leeway is greater than advertised. The longer industrial action goes on, the harder it becomes (verging on impossible, actually) to make progress on Sunak’s promise to cut NHS waiting lists.

[See also: Rishi Sunak needs to learn from Keir Starmer’s ruthlessness]

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But Sunak is sprinting. He feels he doesn’t have very much time. The local elections on 4 May include almost all the areas of England in which a general election will be lost and won.

And the Prime Minister is running less towards something than away from something. Over his head like a huge, bilious, writhing cloud, is The Past – the hangover of the Johnson years. That’s moving pretty quickly too. In that roiling mess you can glimpse Johnson’s public agonising about whether to rebel against the Northern Ireland deal, about the Sue Gray affair, and about the deluge of WhatsApp messages gifted to us by Matt Hancock, which reminds us of the height of the pandemic.

These are being used by the anti-lockdown brigade to demonstrate that ministers took horrifically misguided decisions. Maybe. The mental health effects of lockdown have indeed been long and serious. But there is no alternative reality in which we can see how many people would have died without the lockdowns.

Most reasonable (that word again) people will conclude that the overall picture is an entirely human one: a canvas of flawed individuals struggling with fast-moving and often contradictory information, terrified about their long-term reputations. Yes, there is grotesque vanity, condescension and misunderstanding. But I strongly suspect that had a cache of contemporaneous inky notes taken during the weeks around Dunkirk suddenly been made available, we would have found much the same in Britain’s wartime leadership.

WhatsApp is popular in politics because it is “end-to-end encrypted”, which sounds reassuringly secure – but any messaging device is only as secure as the people on it. Apart from Hancock, Johnson may be the figure who faces the greatest damage from the leaks, because it reminds the country of his blurry confusion when faced with hard choices – Dominic Cummings’ notorious “shopping trolley”.

Yet this cloud swirls on. Sunak must run fast enough below it, resolving problems right, left and centre, to avoid being overwhelmed by the poisonous miasma of the recent past.

[See also: Rishi Sunak is moving at speed – but can he outpace the spectre of Boris Johnson?]

Let’s return to the gravitational pivot of centrist politics. On 28 February Michael Gove gave a speech to the think thank Onward, a centre-right outfit that is presently influential in Downing Street. He slammed the left for post-Marxist identity politics (and there are those around Keir Starmer who might agree). But he also hammered the rentier “butler economy” exemplified by the City of London, attracting capital by servicing it, and called for a new industrial policy: “Rather than being an entrepôt, a bazaar and a duty-free exchange, a strong economy must also make, manufacture, create, innovate and shape.”

As the Ukraine war goes on and – see above – the aftermath of the pandemic fails to quite blow away, we are indeed in a new era, requiring a more resilient state, with more reshoring of manufacturing, greater investment in science and a tougher focus on skills and training. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, told me recently that he saw a consensus between the US Democrats and most Republicans that there needs to be a bigger role for government in infrastructure and investment – “a bipartisan shift in mindset which has not yet happened in the UK”.

Similar ideas are being discussed avidly in Berlin and Paris. The Gove speech was an example, therefore, of a more general tilt away from “ideology” and towards a narrower, more consensual agenda in the centre ground of politics. And there is a possible future in which a combination of this shift, solid progress from Sunak towards his goals and unexpected party discipline (which strategist Isaac Levido is requesting from MPs) gives the Conservatives a better than expected election result next year.

But is that itself not too centrist, too rationalist an analysis, of the slightly smug, “the grown-ups are back in charge” kind we have heard so much of recently? The Tory right remains angry, unreconciled and unpredictable. Johnson retains a direct emotional connection to voters – what you might call a limbic understanding of them – that the “grown-ups” lack.

What Starmer’s appointment of Sue Gray showed is that he is more interested in governing than in electoral politics. If he becomes prime minister, then the first six months of a new Labour government would be immeasurably improved by having her, with her deep knowledge of Whitehall, at its centre. In that respect, it was a masterstroke.

But the politics are already unravelling. Tory MPs are calling for clarity on the timeline of her communications with the cabinet office that advises on such moves. Sunak could yet delay her appointment. Fanatical Johnsonites claim her defection demonstrates such bias that he should be released from any Privileges Committee-ordered punishment over the lockdown parties. That, I think, won’t happen. But Sunak might find himself under pressure to delay or dilute a parliamentary motion against the former prime minister that would lead to a by-election.

What a horrible dilemma that would be for the Prime Minister. Back his fuming predecessor, allowing him to return at some point, yet keeping onside the Tory rebel right – or cut His Shamelessness loose and see his own parliamentary majority diminish just when he needs it most? It’s a classic case of how the cloud above Sunak moves as fast as he does, however quickly he runs.

John Maynard Keynes talked about the “animal spirits” driving economies and they are just as alive in politics. The “natural” centre ground is a delusion. In the US Donald Trump, promising to stop “World War Three”, is roaring back. I believe, because of Putin, the pandemic and the contradictions of globalism, we are entering a new era of the “resilient” state, a view shared by Sunak, Gove and the Labour leadership. But it will always be a race. Declaring the end of populism is complacent and premature. The old devils are agitated still.

[See also: Rishi Sunak can’t win his fight on the small boats bill]

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid