Before he betrayed his boss and became Prime Minister, the word journalists often used to describe Rishi Sunak was “genial”. In Going for Broke, the only biography of Sunak to date, Michael Ashcroft paints a bloodless portrait of a schoolboy who never received detentions, a hedge-fund partner who never screwed anyone over, and a politician who advanced without making enemies.
You can bench the geniality for good. Five days after the Tories washed past Labour in Uxbridge on a tide of whines about Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emission Zone expansion, Sunak is trying to embrace his inner bastard.
What David Cameron once called the “green crap” is now at risk under Rishi too. A ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2030; phasing out gas boilers by 2035; energy efficiency targets for private rentals; low-traffic neighbourhoods – all shall be scrutinised, Downing Street has promised. I imagine this will involve a series of meetings in which Tory strategists ask themselves: “Would Jeremy Clarkson like this?” And then torpedo policies accordingly.
Sunak is also reportedly seeking to “weaponise” Britain’s most divisive issues in the months leading up to the next election: crime, transgender issues, migration. While I would never underestimate the British public’s capacity to be divided and then ruled by conservative politicians, there is a problem with Sunak jettisoning his luxury cashmere hoodies for Daily Express pugilism.
He’s tried this before, and failed. In August 2022, as Sunak battled Liz Truss for the Tory leadership, he went full chest-beater, promising to “tell the truth” to Tory members before telling them what he thought they wanted to hear. “What’s the point in stopping bulldozers in the green belt,” Sunak yelled at one early hustings, “if we allow left-wing agitators to take a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values.” It was the St Crispin’s Day speech delivered by a choir boy. Culture war exhortations turned to ashes in Sunak’s mouth. Tory members could sense it. They picked Truss.
The return of Rishi the pugilist already appears to have stalled. Asked in the West Midlands yesterday if he was going to “stand up” to green measures, the Prime Minister said he would do net zero in “a proportionate and pragmatic way that doesn’t unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their lives”. Doesn’t that sound rather… genial?
Like most Tory things, there is a tradition at work here. An inglorious one: of cake-soft party leaders pretending to be hard men. “The quiet man is here to stay,” a doomed Iain Duncan Smith once told Tory party conference, “and he’s turning up the volume.” Sunak’s attempts to turn up the volume have the same bathetic ring to them.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.
[See also: The Tories just want to watch the world burn]