Andrew MacDougall: Good luck, Prime Minister Sunak. You will need it
To balance the books and restore economic credibility, Sunak and Hunt will have to make “eye-wateringly difficult” decisions.
By: Andrew MacDougall
It says something about the current dysfunction in British politics that the elevation of a third prime minister in a matter of just two months — without a single vote cast, by anyone — is seen as a relief. So all hail the new PM Rishi Sunak, a.k.a. the man who lost to Liz Truss eight weeks ago, as he takes the wheel of this drunken nation.
Sunak won the leadership of the Conservative Party — and through it, the premiership of the country — in the short and sharp race triggered by the spectacular end of the Trussterfuck all of (checks notes) four days ago. With the declared support of nearly 200 of his Parliamentary colleagues, Sunak was able to see off challenges from former prime minister Boris Johnson and current House Leader Penny Mordaunt. Both Mordaunt and Johnson declined to seek a vote by the party membership, prioritizing “party unity” instead.
It will now be up to the 42-year old Sunak, an MP for only seven years, to deliver that party unity. And good luck, as they say, with that. Because the Tories are now riven into warring factions which appear to have no more in common with each other than Jagmeet Singh does with success.
Yeah, it’s that bad.
A good first step for Sunak would be to not repeat the errors of the Truss … era? When you’re in a hole, stop digging, etc. Thankfully, Sunak already has credibility here, having spent the summer telling everyone that Truss’s economic policies would be disastrous. The former chancellor of the Exchequer is, thank Christ, well acquainted with economic reality and is expected to continue the new course set out by Jeremy Hunt, the current chancellor, who has spent his time erasing all of the dick-and-ball doodles Truss scribbled onto the economy. This will surely please the international bond markets, who are the actual rulers of the United Kingdom. It will also please mortgage holders, whose payments are now expected to go up less than during Trussonomics.
But it won’t please everyone.
To balance the books and restore economic credibility, Sunak and Hunt will have to make “eye-wateringly difficult” decisions on tax and spend. Will that mean cuts, hikes to consumption (or other) taxes, or both? Whatever the choices, they will hit a population already struggling under 10-per-cent-plus inflation and soon-to-be sky-high energy prices. That will mean angry voters. If Sunak can’t convince people he’s on their side it will be awfully hard for his party to make up the now-30-point gap with Labour.
First, however, Sunak must convince his own party he’s on their side. And while he racked up the most MP endorsements in both leadership contests this year, a large cohort of Conservative MPs lay the blame at his feet for the defenestration of Boris Johnson, i.e. the man who won the Conservatives their last actual mandate from the electorate, all the way back in the before times of 2019. That’s probably because Sunak did, indeed, trigger the defenestration of Johnson by resigning as his chancellor over Johnson’s serial lies over his role in breaking lockdown restrictions. But where Sunak led, dozens more ministers followed, so the blame isn’t all the new prime minister’s. Moreover, the British public are no longer enamoured with Johnson, so the spilled milk isn’t worth more tears.
To rally his colleagues, Sunak will have to avoid another Truss mistake and, unlike his predecessor, choose to fill his cabinet with a team of rivals. Johnson backers, Trussites (if there are any left), One Nation Tories, and Brexit headbangers will all have to have their place at the decision-making table. Some of their differences will be bridged by the market handcuffs now in place, but others, like immigration, will need some work. Can Brexit Britain open the doors to more skilled migrants, while closing the smuggling routes bringing more and more irregular arrivals to its shores?
Sunak will, as much as possible, seek to avoid picking any difficult battles in the early days of his premiership. After weeks of drama, the public would benefit from a few months of boring competence, something Sunak’s CV suggests he can deliver. Only after a period of calm will Sunak be able to examine the entrails of Johnsonism — a cakeism different to Sunak’s more orthodox fiscal conservatism — to see what can still be delivered. It will help that Sunak is a Brexiteer and an MP from the North (Yorkshire), but it won’t be the full fat redistribution Johnson was elected on three years ago.
In normal circumstances, a significant shift in mandate or government direction would require an election. Indeed, Labour leader Keir Starmer is begging for one. Hell, even some Tories are conceding their lack of legitimacy given all the twists and turns of recent months. But Sunak is under no obligation to grant a trip to the polls. What Sunak must avoid is losing a vote in the House of Commons on an issue that splits his own side.
In other words, Sunak must figure out how to run his party, before it figures out how to run him. Pray for us all.
Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy and former head of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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