Rishi Sunak’s government: united by ideas that have failed
Editorial Articles – The Guardian
The Conservatives’ unpopular policies will lead to private opulence and public squalor. It’s a recipe for disunity
Rishi Sunak’s first day in office saw him purge his Conservative opponents from government – and damn his predecessors with faint praise. He said Liz Truss had the right idea to improve Britain’s economic growth rate, but she was not up to the job. His message to Boris Johnson was no less brutal. In an artful critique, Mr Sunak said Mr Johnson became Britain’s prime minister – not its president – by winning the 2019 election. The mandate, he pointedly said, was not a personal one, but belongs to “all of us”. Mr Sunak – whose political career appeared stalled, if not over, two months ago – could be excused for gloating. But excessive self-confidence will only harden the resolve of his Commons adversaries.
Ms Truss and Mr Johnson are figures shrunken by events. Yet both remain lightning conductors for dissent. While Mr Johnson tweeted his congratulations to the new prime minister, Ms Truss, in her speech outside Downing Street, showed no sign of contrition for her calamitous time in office. Instead, she doubled down on her argument that cutting taxes was the route to growth, defiantly quoting the Roman philosopher Seneca’s words that “it is not because things are difficult that we do not dare. It is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” She signalled that Mr Sunak would be looking for trouble if he were to drop commitments to Brexit “freedoms” and defence spending.
The last two occupants of No 10 were constitutionally important figures. Both were the only prime ministers to have been directly elected by their party’s members. This might have explained why power appeared to go to their heads. Ms Truss could only count on the support of a minority of the parliamentary party. By contrast, Mr Sunak was elected by Tory MPs, with more than half publicly backing him. This affords him some breathing space. Michael Gove, who tormented Ms Truss, is rewarded with a return to what seems a male-heavy cabinet.
The prime minister is wrong to return Dominic Raab to the justice ministry, where his disastrous confrontation with barristers caused the courts to close. And he’s even more wrong to reappoint Suella Braverman as home secretary after she left cabinet because of a security breach. The new government is not so much a reboot as a restoration of an old idea: that government spending ought to be constrained to control inflation. Such thinking will lead to austerity and produce a blend of “private opulence and public squalor”.
The Tories won their parliamentary majority with promises of getting Brexit done, rebuilding the NHS and tackling regional inequality. None of these have been redeemed. Mr Sunak, who has been in government since 2019, is part of the problem. The government spends lots of money, but not necessarily in ways that help voters. On Monday night, ministers secured £11bn extra to cover the Bank of England for losses on bonds it had bought. Tory MPs will find it hard to defend such largesse when public services are being cut and household bills are shooting skywards.
After 12 years in power, the Conservative party is exhausted and mutinous. Loyalty to its leader is contingent on opinion polling. Mr Sunak seems a wooden performer, with policies that will exacerbate the crisis that voters face. Sooner or later, he will face the parliamentary disunity that his election sought to banish, leaving the country once again with a ringside seat at a political circus.
Profits in the City, austerity in the country
Symbols are important, but the Tory leader’s background as a hedge fund manager rather than his race explains his politics
It is a sign of democratic progress that Britain’s next prime minister will be of Indian heritage. The Conservative party is not the natural home for many of the country’s non-white voters. Yet so many Tory MPs wanted Rishi Sunak to be their leader that he was elected unopposed. Mr Sunak will be the first prime minister of colour and the first Hindu in Downing Street. His elevation during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, will be a source of pride for many of his co-religionists – and for Britain’s political system.
The Tories have now had three female prime ministers, four non-white chancellors and Mr Sunak as prime minister. The Conservative party can with good reason claim that identity is not a bar to the highest office in the land. Labour cannot say the same. In politics, symbols are important. But images themselves are powerless. Mr Sunak, the country’s youngest prime minister in modern times, ascended to the top job without saying how he would deal with a looming recession and rocketing inflation.
The new prime minister is the richest man in parliament. Despite having no popular mandate, he did little to reassure people who are worried sick about rising costs or lengthening NHS waits. The emergency is real. Yet Mr Sunak seems intent on turning off household support for energy bills next April. He plainly thinks that meeting an arbitrary target of reducing national debt is more important than saving people from penury. Without fiscal expansion and the energy price guarantee, inflation will be higher and the recession deeper. Interest rates are likely to rise. Analysts at Morgan Stanley say borrowing costs for homes could hit 6%, which – along with higher utility bills – would see up to 40% of households struggle to pay their mortgage.
Mr Sunak is a smart politician in what has been called the stupid party. His wonkish delivery does little to excite fellow Conservatives. In the summer, Tory members preferred Liz Truss’s trickle-down economics to his unflashy plans. Yet Mr Sunak looked attractive after Trussonomics blew up on the launch pad before it took off. The parliamentary party became ungovernable with Ms Truss as leader. Mr Sunak is lucky, as he is able now to blame Ms Truss for the pain that the country will endure.
Perhaps it is Mr Sunak’s background as a hedge fund manager rather than his race that explains his politics. The big winners from his arrival in office will be the owners of UK government bonds. The yield on 30-year gilts is now back to roughly where it was before the Truss government’s mini-budget. While the City profits, voters will pay through austerity.
The next Tory prime minister has a mountain to climb. Polling for the rightwing thinktank Onward shows that Labour is leading the Tories on every issue facing the country other than defence and Brexit. The bad news for Mr Sunak, a fiscal conservative, is that just one in six voters have economically rightwing values. More prefer equality over growth. Climbing divulges hidden truths about the climber. Mr Sunak could emulate the former Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who was born Jewish, with a promise to heal social divides. Without such a commitment and policies to back it up, Mr Sunak’s premiership is likely to be short and messy. Britain cannot afford another prime minister elected by Tory MPs or party members. The country’s next leader must be chosen through the ballot box.