At a party before Christmas a minister, explaining the underperformance of the Conservatives, said of the Prime Minister: “Rishi isn’t a politician. He’s a manager.” I asked why, with a general election probably less than a year away, the Tories appeared not to be campaigning. “That’s why,” he replied. Earlier I had said to a Conservative peer that I wouldn’t recognise the recently appointed chairman of the Tory party, Richard Holden, if he walked in. “Neither would I,” he said. We agreed that with the election so close the chairman should be under orders from his leader to take the fight to the enemy: if Holden is, he is going an odd way about it.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Rishi Sunak is not a cronyist – a trait for which Boris Johnson was notorious. However, another minister described Holden as one of “Rishi’s people”, a small group led by James Forsyth, Sunak’s political secretary, school friend and best man. It also includes Liam Booth-Smith, his chief of staff, and Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister. Those who have tried to get an idea through to Sunak have found he simply won’t take an interest unless it is flagged up by one of his “people”. None of them is stupid, but they are, to say the least, uniform, and regarded as uninspiring. As a result, so increasingly is the Prime Minister.
Before the fight can be taken to the enemy Sunak needs to define what, exactly, that fight is. What policies could persuade people to vote Conservative rather than Labour, or Liberal, or – and this is the party’s increasingly articulated fear – Reform UK, with the allure of Nigel Farage? Indeed, what policies would get Conservative voters into the polling booths? Much of the damage at recent by-elections seems to have been done not so much by people switching sides as by people not turning out at all.
The government is under constant attack from its own backbenchers for pursuing strategies of high taxation, uncontrolled migration, an overstaffed public sector and a weak defence policy of the sort Tories normally expect of a Labour administration. And, as his ratings sink (dropping from 30 per cent of Britons viewing the Prime Minister favourably to 24 per cent during 2023), Sunak is the magnet attracting blame for these failings. His political death is widely predicted come the election; his colleagues, few of whom imagine he will triumph, see his much-remarked-upon Green Card – which he held during his time as chancellor, until October 2021 – as indicating a lucrative post-political future in the US. But if that death does come, it will not least be because he has seemed often to be digging his own grave.
No one forced Sunak to be Prime Minister; nonetheless he assumed power in horrible circumstances. He followed what history – barring a shocking future misfortune – may come to regard as the two worst British prime ministers, Johnson and Liz Truss. Nor is history likely to be that favourable to their two predecessors: David Cameron, whose restoration to government is one of Sunak’s more bizarre decisions, not least because the full truth about Cameron’s former patron and paymaster Lex Greensill has yet to emerge; and Theresa May, a pound-shop Hamlet chronically incapable of taking a decision.
To an extent, Sunak benefits from his immediate predecessors. He is a man of integrity and decency and, as such, the polar opposite of the liar and charlatan Johnson; and he has practical intelligence and sense, setting him apart from Truss. He has been hobbled not so much by having to clear up their mess as by the often unsure way he has gone about it. He was complicit in some of it, notably the way Johnson splurged money on the handling of the pandemic while Sunak was chancellor. The bean-counters have done the sums on Eat Out to Help Out, for example, and it is far from clear it was £849m well spent. Public funds were poured into spending departments without proper mechanisms for ensuring effective procurement: the appalling Baroness Mone scandal is but one example of the consequences of reckless spending. But most of what happened from the start of lockdown in March 2020 until Johnson’s long-overdue implosion in July 2022 was little to do with Sunak, beyond the collective responsibility that tainted him and all his colleagues.
Much that was out of his control: Johnson’s lack of attention to detail, his lying, his disregard for his responsibilities, and his apparent inability to take serious matters seriously and to behave in anything approaching a statesmanlike fashion damaged the Conservatives’ reputation profoundly. Given the Tories’ claims to be the party of good economic management, so did the debacle of Truss’s 49 days in office, ended by the worst financial strategy of any government in living memory. This combination of moral and intellectual failure was an appalling legacy for any incoming leader, and that Sunak has steadied a ship some think should have sunk long ago remains an achievement. If it says nothing for him as a politician, it does say something for him as a manager – but to many MPs who feel they are awaiting oblivion, it is not good enough.
The November reshuffle was viewed as a classic example of his missing an opportunity to improve the party’s standing – though before it a disenchanted minister reminded me that “no reshuffle ever won an election”. There are some capable ministers, but too many appear mismatched with their jobs. This was inevitable in Johnson’s time, when the only criteria for appointment were cronyism and sycophancy, but is less explicable now, given Sunak is less wedded to such considerations.
[See also: Sunak is gambling on a better economy in 2024]
For example: the blunders of James Cleverly, the Home Secretary – the most recent of which was an attempted joke that he fed his wife a date-rape drug – suggest he is not ideal for a great office of state. In his previous posting at the Foreign Office, Cleverly sometimes resembled a walking violation of the Trade Descriptions Act – or, as one of his colleagues put it, “not-so-Cleverly”. But he is genial and charismatic, and many thought he would have made the perfect party chairman. That job instead went to Holden, North West Durham’s first Conservative MP and, barring a miracle, probably its last for some time. Holden is there to boost the morale of fellow doomed Red Wall-ers. Having worked throughout his short career solely as a party apparatchik he has little perspective to offer in the struggle now under way. Cecil Parkinson he isn’t. Cleverly’s limitations might not matter had his department not failed to manage two serious crises: an influx of migrants so large that there is not the housing, capacity in the NHS or social services to cope with their potential demands; and a law and order problem deeply worrying many Conservatives, with drug-gang warfare now rife in some cities and 43 knife-crime incidents in London per day.
Similarly, the Defence Secretary – who would have to ensure Britain could play its part in defending not just itself but the West if the Russian-Ukraine conflict expanded – is none other than Grant Shapps. With the world at its most dangerous since the Cuban Missile Crisis and possibly since the Second World War, Britain’s armed forces – supposedly an essential component of Nato – remain under-resourced. Shapps’s appointment to succeed the infinitely more credible Ben Wallace seemed crazy to those in his party with expertise in the field. “The thing about Shapps,” a dismayed colleague told me, “is that he will do anything he is asked. It doesn’t occur to him that he might not be up to it and, apparently, nor to the people who appoint him.”
As a former chancellor and banker, Sunak can read a balance sheet, and he understands how grim certain aspects of the British economy are. However, he has perhaps wedded himself too profoundly to the ultra-caution of the Second Lord of the Treasury, Jeremy Hunt, following the Truss disaster. Some of Sunak’s MPs feel he has not looked hard enough for ways to make the savings that might allow Tory supporters to be tempted out of their disenchantment. The notion of cutting the welfare budget in an economy with high levels of employment has been discussed, but remains rhetorical. So too does the necessity of devising an end-of-life care service, sidelined by Cameron in 2011 after the Dilnot Report and never revisited. And many doctors agree that, while the NHS is short of medical and paramedical staff, it is wasting resources precisely because of the lack of proper end-of-life care, and because of serious overmanning by an ineffectual management.
Conservatives point to other institutions and argue that Sunak has done nothing to improve them – and, indeed, in some cases seems not to notice that they need improvement. There is dissatisfaction with standards in the state education system and outrage at Labour’s plan to impose VAT on private school fees, a proposal against which the Tory party seems reluctant to campaign – even though it could place impossible burdens on an already overloaded state education system if many parents were to stop educating their children privately. The image of universities as places where freedom of speech is discouraged and curricula are being narrowed according to a “progressivist” political agenda is another issue Conservatives feel the government should address. They also regard the BBC as institutionally leftist. But, above all, they see the Sunak administration as continuing to fail miserably to exploit the deregulatory possibilities offered by Brexit: being able to buy champagne in pint bottles hardly ticks the box. Inertia seems the watchword.
Rishi Sunak has taken decisions many Conservatives thought right. His restricting the HS2 programme confronted the reality of its present unaffordability. His environmental U-turn recognised the difficulties of banning the sales of new petrol- and diesel-driven vehicles as early as 2030, and the huge expense to most families of heat pumps. There is also the matter of our electricity-generating capacity, with Sunak’s “energy security strategy” (announced after Russia’s attack on Ukraine and with a potential large increase in nuclear power) remaining theoretical.
By way of preparation for the new parliamentary term, Sunak had appeared to give a measure of clarity by indicating there would be no election until after the summer holidays. But he soon sustained a fresh blow in the resignation from parliament of the former minister Chris Skidmore, over the government’s decision to grant oil and gas exploration licences. While this policy is supported by most Conservatives, who want more non-renewable energy options, Skidmore is part of a noisy minority that deplores the idea. Worse, it adds another by-election, and probable by-election defeat, to the one likely in Wellingborough following the recall petition against Peter Bone. A third is possible in Blackpool South, where the MP Scott Benton faces a suspension for a “very serious breach” of parliamentary standards after the Times alleged he suggested to undercover reporters he would be willing to break lobbying rules (Benton denies this). In normal times Wellingborough and Kingswood – Skidmore’s seat – should be safe. But these are far from normal times for the Tories.
If the Prime Minister is heading for defeat, then his qualities of character should at least ensure it is defeat with honour. But many will believe it did not need to be defeat at all. His inheritance, his caution, his managerialism will all be blamed. The choice to stop digging his grave is his, but it will soon be too late.
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously