Rishi Sunak has pulled off a silent coup. The former chancellor has become prime minister without a single speech, interview or debate. His comically short address following his coronation as Conservative leader (a mere 86 seconds) offered little enlightenment. In his technocratic aloofness, Sunak resembles an IMF official poised to impose a “structural adjustment programme” on a stricken developing world economy.
Yet for some this opaque, post-democratic exercise has come as a blessed relief. After Liz Truss’s kamikaze economics, the UK once again has a “grown-up” at the wheel. The narrative has been set: Sunak is an unbiased, competent leader who will administer harsh but necessary medicine.
This narrative should be resisted. Though a less outwardly ideological figure than Liz Truss, Sunak is far from a pragmatic centrist. Indeed, his ascension represents a triumph for the Conservatives’ Thatcherite wing.
Last summer’s leadership contest between Sunak and Truss did not, as some claimed, represent a genuine ideological clash. Rather, Tory members were offered two varieties of neoliberalism: Reaganite tax cuts from Truss and Thatcherite fiscal discipline from Sunak. The implosion of the former has created the ideal pretext for the latter but the similarities are more important than the differences.
Though Sunak is not one of the co-authors, with Truss, of Britannia Unchained, he shares that pamphlet’s ideal of a shrunken state. Back in 2015, as a newly-elected MP, he argued that “in normal times public spending should not exceed 37 per cent of GDP” – an arbitrary figure that reveals only Sunak’s ideological predilections. Today, in a new era of permanent crisis, such a figure could only be achieved through turbo-austerity and a sharp break with European norms.
In 2016 Sunak wrote a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, the think tank co-founded by Thatcher, championing free ports – economic zones liberated from standard taxes and regulations. For Sunak, who backed Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, the appeal of Brexit was to tilt the UK in an even more pro-market direction. “To finish the job that Margaret Thatcher started” in the words of former chancellor Nigel Lawson (who Sunak hung a portrait of in his Treasury office).
More recently, as the New Statesman revealed in August, Sunak boasted to Conservative Party members in affluent Tunbridge Wells that he had taken public money from “deprived urban areas” and redistributed it to towns such as theirs. Here was a reminder, as the historian Quinn Slobodian has charted, that neoliberalism isn’t defined by a small state but rather one that acts to protect class interests.
Sunak’s reputation was burnished by his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, when he introduced the furlough scheme, multiple business loans and a £20-a-month increase in Universal Credit, but such interventions ultimately served as an emergency support system for the UK’s existing capitalist model. The opportunity to reaffirm welfare as a form of collective insurance against life’s hazards was thwarted. As soon as it was politically feasible, Sunak reversed the rise in Universal Credit, delivering the biggest overnight cut in social security since the Second World War. During last summer’s Tory leadership election he opined that “we need to get much tougher on welfare” to tackle inflationary pay in the labour market. Norman Tebbit – who spoke of how his father “got on his bike and looked for work” – would approve of such logic.
Sunak’s tax rises – which earned him the opprobrium of the right – hardly dent his Thatcherite credentials. The Iron Lady, as her disciples are fond of forgetting, raised VAT from 8 per cent to 15 per cent and increased National Insurance (like Sunak) from 6 per cent to 9 per cent alongside reducing the top rate of income tax from 83 per cent to 40 per cent.
By several measures, then, Sunak is the UK’s most Thatcherite prime minister since Thatcher herself. The collapse of Truss’s economics has prompted a renewed desire to satisfy the markets but no deeper Conservative reflection on Britain’s economy and society. Thatcherism itself prompted waves of resistance from the Tories’ One Nation wing – as documented in Ian Gilmour’s Dancing with Dogma – but its ideological inheritors face little opposition today. The brief Tory experiment with “industrial strategy” and something closer to European-style Christian Democracy has definitively ended.
That Sunak, a man who declared in July that “I am running as a Thatcherite and I will govern as a Thatcherite” is today characterised as a centrist confirms only the closing of the Conservative mind.