Rishi Sunak is trapped offering false answers because he won’t acknowledge that his own party is the issue.
The Conservative party entered 2023 in an iffy truce after spending 2022 at war with itself. Rishi Sunak must steer clear of the past and future, two difficult subjects, in order to maintain harmony. There isn’t much room for maneuvering with that.
It is difficult to describe the past without bringing up Liz Truss, and Boris Johnson, and the reasons why none of them is the current prime minister. Sunak cannot explain how he came to be in control without criticizing the party he heads and describing the carelessness of the governments he served.
The majority of the problems Sunak has with his administration were either started by his predecessors or made worse by their careless mismanagement. Without exposing the problems that his accession was intended to hide, he cannot renounce them.
However, without outlining the previous events, a leader finds it difficult to describe what will happen next. The address Sunak gave last week outlining his goals lacked that sense of a journey. There were five promises, carefully worded to make short-term damage control appear like a daring goal.
Lower inflation and shorter NHS waiting lists are two promises made by the prime minister (taking a fairly safe punt that both are on a downward trajectory from current peaks). He was careful not to specify how quickly or by how much he wanted economic growth to resume and for the national debt to decline (all of which are anticipated to do so).
Low-balling the economic standard doesn’t ensure Sunak will succeed. However, the vow that appears, on paper, to be easiest to fulfill is weighted with political risk: a parliamentary act to make the migration over the English Channel in tiny boats even more illegal than it is now. This is different from reducing the overall number of trips, a statistic that is unresponsive to onerous laws. In the Commons, the prime minister can only make gestures; he cannot make decisions.
Voters won’t be impressed by the distinction because they’ll be outraged by stories of Albanians still docking boats in Kent. Sunak will scarcely be able to claim that he made the law harder if it is being broken. Only by boosting the platform from which Nigel Farage and his tribute acts on the populist right of the Tory party criticize the government for failing to protect the nation’s borders would the prime minister succeed.
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The “people’s priorities” promises made by Sunak, according to his supporters, are meant to streamline the Tory project and help it run more successfully in the general election under the leadership of the prime minister. The goal is to relentlessly and monomaniacally discipline people to follow the five-point strategy. The small percentage of people who follow politics closely will be thoroughly bored, but the much bigger audience who just rarely listens in to Westminster will learn that the prime minister is taking action on the subjects that bother them the most.
The condensed agenda is created to support Sunak’s reputation as a pragmatic problem-solver. When he was a young chancellor with a fresh face dealing with an unexpected pandemic, he once had access to that branding. But now he represents a party that has been in power for 13 years, during which time the average person’s salary and standard of living have declined.
Problems can be solved, but legislation can also be used to prevent them. A good example is the government’s proposed anti-strike law, which was presented to parliament on Tuesday. Its goal is to restrict employees’ ability to engage in collective bargaining when providing vital public services. This will make it more difficult to settle ongoing disagreements with nurses, teachers, train drivers, and other parties. A government that breaks the legal means through which trade union pressure is deployed in response to such pressure is not serious about dialogue.
Since the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, conservative views on labor relations have rarely changed. Sunak, who was born in 1980, is only familiar with this time period from the historical fable of Mrs. Thatcher taming the red barons. The iron lady is the last reliable icon among former prime ministers, but she is not still an inspiration just for Tories in the twenty-first century.
Since then, there have been five more, but none of them are suitable for serving as role models due to either spectacular failure, selling out to Europe, or both. With promises to manage shady decline like John Major, embrace metropolitan liberalism like David Cameron, sacrifice himself to the Brexit compromise like Theresa May, or explode Britain’s economic credibility like Liz Truss, Sunak can barely bring his party together.
The political cemetery for Boris Johnson isn’t deep enough for Sunak to safely offer a eulogy on it. Many Tory MPs believe that their former boss would be better at defending their seats in a general election. To the consternation of their colleagues who remember what it was like to have a prime minister with a pathological antipathy to probity, they speak of a resurrection.
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By that recollection, Sunak is both shielded and weakened. He is in Downing Street because his party favored corrupt officials. The mess has to be cleaned up by someone. It is hardly a victory to brag about, but if it is overlooked, the Tories’ flimsy allegiance to their least-worst option also disappears. He hasn’t won any debates or even any elections. He is merely a stand-in prime minister, shielding his eyes from the past, remaining silent about the future, stuck in the present, and getting smaller by the day. He is neither the custodian nor the creator of a legacy.