Updated: Dec 4, 2022
If you’ve been following the Conservative Party’s Machiavellian Game of Thrones adaptation in the news then you will already know that, after a thoroughly entertaining 45-day episode with Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak has become our third Prime Minister of the year. Seen by some as a Diwali gift to the world and by others as the same Tory pig with more lipstick, Sunak inherits a government that is arguably under more pressure than ever before. The big question is can he handle it?
Broadly speaking, there are three main problems Sunak needs to deal with in his premiership. Firstly, he needs to quickly deliver a budget that restores market confidence by addressing the £40B black hole left over from the Kamikaze mini‑budget and putting forward a coherent long-term economic strategy with support from the Office for Budget Responsibility. He also needs to mobilise the Conservative Party behind a common legislative agenda or, at the very least, mitigate the impact of any factional dissent. Finally, as a Prime Minister with no democratic mandate, he desperately needs to earn his authority over government administration and restore public favour in his party, which is currently polling behind the SNP in terms of seats.
Unlike his two predecessors, Sunak doesn’t seem to be impeded by his own arrogance. He would have been perfectly within his right to begin his inaugural address outside Number 10 with “I told you so” has been the only candidate in the July leadership race not to commit to tax cuts. Instead, he spent a great deal of time praising his rivals before revealing his vision for the future with confidence and acknowledging the high standards required of him as Prime Minister. This was perhaps no surprise as Sunak’s presentational coherence far exceeds that of Truss and Boris Johnson but his thorough overview of the problems facing the country and acknowledgement of potential doubts showed a level of self-awareness we might not have expected from Britain’s wealthiest politician.
If history is anything to go by these days, we might be tempted to draw comparisons with our old friend “dodgy Dave”. Both left their all-boys boarding schools to study PPE at Oxford before making a name for themselves in the business world, writing for a few right wing think tanks and manoeuvring their way up the Conservative Party ecosystem. The continuity of Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor would certainly confirm these suspicions, which means Britain is heading into the second round of austerity but there are problems with this strategy. The disastrous consequences of austerity volume 1 are now common knowledge so there is not much political appetite for a sequel and Sunak can’t really afford to lose more ground in the polls.
This is further complicated when considering that the mandate upon which Sunak claims legitimacy was that of Johnson’s 2019 general election victory, where the austerity programme of George Osborne was comprehensively renounced. Even if he were to wriggle his way out of that predicament, making further cuts to public services just isn’t feasible when for example, the NHS is carrying out 12% less procedures than in 2019 and the idea that this gap can be substantially closed by improving operational efficiency is a complete fantasy.
Then there’s Sunak’s cabinet to consider, summarised in true Tory fashion by Foreign Secretary James Cleverly as “not having our first XV on the pitch”. Dominic Raab, as Justice Secretary, failed to resolve the barrister strikes, as Foreign Secretary, went on holiday during the Taliban takeover of Kabul and, as Brexit Secretary, refused to support his own Brexit deal, has miraculously found himself back in the cabinet again and is probably as surprised as the rest of us. Meanwhile, the inclusion of Suella Braverman, Michael Gove and Penny Mordaunt might seem like strategic choices to broaden party representation and prevent rebellion but could easily come back to bite, particularly in the case of Braverman, whose volatility poses a substantial threat to the stability of Sunak’s leadership.
Having said all this, he seems to know better than anyone how to tame the wolves of the Tory Party and his record‑breaking seven‑year transition from backbench MP to Prime Minister should not be overlooked. Less than thirty minutes after writing an article in support of Johnson’s leadership bid, Nadhim Zahawi proclaimed his “full support and loyalty” to Sunak in an embarrassingly desperate attempt to win favour. He might just be the only person with the political acumen to handle all these moving parts with care and restore a level of decorum to British politics, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. The most recent available polling data shows that, whilst Starmer is still comfortably ahead, Sunak has significantly higher approval ratings than Truss did so we can expect Labour’s lead to decrease. The odds are certainly stacked against Rishi from all sides of the table but if Keir is not slightly worried then he should be.
Written by Alex Freeney