Who is Sunak, and what does he want for Britain? He is not Johnson or Truss.
Christmas Day marked Rishi Sunak’s 62nd day in office as prime minister, considerably exceeding Liz Truss’s tenure. a meager accomplishment by any standard. However, the Conservatives are not really in a position to sneer at minor successes after the horrendous year that was 2022.
And when Tory MPs eventually elected him in October, the prime minister will, in general, have accomplished his goal of calming the ship. The markets are no longer in a frenzy, Westminster politics seems stable, if not monotonous, and if you look closely, the polls are even starting to close.
Good news thus far, However, if normal service is restored, normal expectations will inevitably follow. A grateful country won’t grant the Conservatives a historic fifth term just because it has stopped choosing chaos spirits to be its leaders. Sunak needs to convince doubting voters to cast their vote for the Conservatives in order to win the upcoming election. It’s still unclear whether he or his party are capable of doing it.
To be fair to the prime minister, he begins in a very challenging circumstance, not the least of which is the fact that he inherited the majority of his cabinet, including the chancellor. Even without the burning of the Truss premiership, it is challenging to turn things around and take the lead in a parliament’s second half. Even if he had a fresh legislative agenda, neither the time nor the schedule would allow for it.
Additionally, he lacks one because there has never been a “Sunakism” His policy platform, which the membership rejected during the leadership election in the summer, was then abandoned in October under the pretext of finishing the job left behind by his predecessor. Even while it won’t be enough to win an election, “not being Truss” is essentially the entire foundation on which he ultimately earned the leadership. There is no implied assumption by Tory MPs that they must fight unpopular battles in order to support him; they do not feel obligated to do so.
As a result, Sunak’s attractive Commons majority is mostly fictitious. Even if the government had the space to bring something forward, there would likely be enough Tory rebels to block it because the parliamentary party is so split after 12 years in control along so many lines.
Leadership is important. Sunak might have adjusted to the situation by accepting Labour’s offer of assistance in passing the levelling up and regeneration bill and forging case-by-case alliances to pass crucial legislation. He didn’t, though. Instead, ministers submitted to the recent coalition of Conservative backbenchers, which was the most naive and damaging in history. Only at the price of genuinely governing was the appearance of unity maintained. Most likely, it will be between 18 months and two years before the next election. That is not much time to accomplish anything. However, a long time can pass by doing nothing.
Even Tories who support Sunak occasionally fear that his political acumen has not been put to the test. Regardless of his qualifications, he was elected to No. 11 because he would accept conditions that Sajid Javid would not, and No. 10 (at the second knock) because Truss destroyed the public finances.
His Covid support initiatives, which at one time made him the most well-liked politician in the nation and the likely successor to the prime minister, were a response to an emergency and went against his hardline budgetary tendencies.
But even the most well-suited politician at the time would find it difficult to handle the responsibilities of his new job. The Tories still appear to be in intellectual drift after 12 years. Since 2015, they have switched horses four times, and while each time seemed like a spectacular act of regeneration, the overall result is confusion.
Despite excellent work being done on specific policy matters, there is no discernible ideological trend from 2010 to the present. Many Conservative activists are dissatisfied that their party has not altered the nation in the same way as Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher did despite having been in power almost as long as New Labour.
Thus, it is ridiculous that supporters of Boris Johnson started a new grassroots movement to resist the “leftwingers'” takeover of the party. Sunak is a typically right-wing politician by any rational standard, so the specific accusation is absurd. However, the irritation points to a larger truth about the Tories’ alleged incapacity to use power wisely.
The political rhetoric of the party also implicitly acknowledges this, even if the government would hardly admit to feeling the same way. Backbench MPs call the train strikes “a vision of Labour’s Britain,” Nadhim Zahawi tries to blame Labour for them, while others heroically try to recapture the “chaos with Ed Miliband” image by imagining how horrible things might have been if Cameron hadn’t won the 2010 election. It’s not quite “It’s morning again in America,” the catchphrase Ronald Reagan coined in 1984 to win a resounding victory for a second term. When a party, after holding office for so long, chooses to focus more on its opposing campaign against a hypothetical government than on its own performance, it is not a good indicator.
Sunak is left with two significant questions. The first is whether he can deliver a fifth term of Conservative government in spite of all the odds. The second is whether, if he does, he can adequately explain its purpose to the public and his disgruntled activists. If not, even his leadership can end up being unstable. His support is based on transactions, just as Johnson’s. Less Steve Jobs, more John J. Ray III, the man appointed as CEO of business disasters like Enron and FTX to handle their bankruptcy processes; unlike Johnson, he does not offer big-picture thinking or major victories. But Ray doesn’t answer to the people who hand-selected and supported the “visionary” leaders whose mistakes he has to clean up; instead, he only answers to the courts and the creditors. Not so fortunately is the prime minister.
What is to stop his party from taking a final chance if he can’t bridge the gap with Labour and “red wall” MPs keep making depressing comments about how they all anticipate losing their seats?
It sounds absurd. It would be absurd. However, that does not guarantee that it won’t. In embarrassing byelection defeats and municipal election routs, a year is a very long time. Once a habit, regicide may be challenging to break. The Johnson’s ultras are waiting for any justification to hoist their prince’s torn standard once more over the river. If they do, the rest of the party must hope that by then the cabinet has created yet another candidate who could halt him and break glass in an emergency. So yet, there hasn’t been a standout prospect.