Whether you agreed with Rishi Sunak’s early leadership pledges or not – and it looks as if the majority of Conservative members did not – there was something a little noble about the initial stage of Sunak’s campaign to become Conservative leader.
Yes, there was his unfortunate tech-bro tone and characteristic lapses in judgement, such as when he mocked Liz Truss for previously supporting the Liberal Democrats and backing Remain. But you had to respect a candidate prepared to try and not pander to the party base.
Right up until this week’s dramatic “Sun Showdown” on TalkTV, the former chancellor was making a dignified case for a solid Tory principle: that day-to-day spending (as opposed to investment) shouldn’t be funded through borrowing, and that controlling inflation is more important than unfunded giveaways.
Yet having failed to close the gap with Truss, his campaign now seems to have gone into pander mode. First there was a U-turn on tax cuts. Sunak’s team insist his won’t be inflationary, but if that’s the case, why did the former chancellor wait so long to announce it?
Then today, infinitely more depressingly, Sunak has announced that he will address the real problem facing Britain: the overdevelopment of the green belt. He tweeted: “We’ve seen too many examples of local councils circumventing the views of residents by taking land out of the green belt for development, but I will put a stop to it.”
Green belt land is extremely precious in the UK.— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) July 28, 2022
We’ve seen too many examples of local councils circumventing the views of residents by taking land out of the green belt for development, but I will put a stop to it.https://t.co/AjF14PrQYF
Sign up: https://t.co/3cXn1rFhca pic.twitter.com/6tLv2UZ6Ak
Thank goodness. After all, the data reveals that Britain’s green belt has shrunk by 1 per cent – you read that right, 1 per cent – since 2006. If these trends continue, the entire green belt will have been paved over in just 1,000 years. A week is supposed to be a long time in politics; a millennium, apparently, is not.
This total capitulation to one of the biggest vested interests standing in the way of economic growth exposes Sunak’s claims to be our next Margaret Thatcher as totally hollow.
Love her or loathe her, the Iron Lady forged her legend by taking on some of the pillars of a failing postwar order. Nationalised industries and powerful trades unions were as much a part of the landscape in the Seventies as the byzantine planning system is today.
Both Sunak and Truss readily invite comparisons with Thatcher – yet neither is flattered by them, because neither shows even an ounce of her willingness to slaughter the sacred cows of their own day. Sunak kowtows to the homeowner interest; Truss adopts the rhetoric of a free trader but is against what used to be the main case for free trade – importing food to bring down prices for workers and families.
Thatcherism was an answer to the problems of a different time. It can no more offer the Tories a blueprint for Britain’s current woes than could a hand-me-down Stanley Baldwin have triumphed in the Eighties.
Sunak at first seemed to understand this. Now his change of tack suggests the Conservatives aren’t yet ready to ask the really hard questions about the UK’s structural problems. But then there is scant evidence the electorate is ready for the answers.
And so our contenders will limp on, each looking smaller for their refusal to step out from the shadows of giants.