Sunak as Prime Minister

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

“A bright and decent man with bad ideas.” The Economist.

A Prime Minister who Understands Money

Labour Party supporters might have been cast down by the prospect of a seemingly competent Tory leader after the destructive ineptitude of Liz Truss had given Labour a 36 point lead in the opinion polls. There are many things to like about Rishi Sunak. He is the youngest British prime minister since 1783, the first prime minister “of colour” and the first Hindu prime minister. My country, the Republic of Ireland, got there first and also ticked another diversity box. Leo Varadkar, whose father was born in Mumbai, was appointed Taoiseach, (prime minister) in 2017 at the age of 38. During the campaign for the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum, Varadkar came out as gay.

After the boosterish bluster and scandalous sleaze of Boris Johnson, it is a relief to have a prime minister who dresses smartly and seems to have a happy family life. After the sheer incompetence and abysmal communication skills of Liz Truss, it is a comfort to have a prime minister who can speak in seemingly coherent sentences and give the impression that he knows what he is talking about (even if he is avoiding answering the question, like they all do). He is the first prime minister with an MBA and his successful career at Goldman Sachs and eye-watering personal wealth indicate that he understands money.

Liz Truss put a lot of misplaced faith in the ideas of an economist that most people consider a quack, Patrick Minford. Her reliance on a quack made her first a lame duck then a dead duck. Criticism was water off a duck’s back until she U-turned out of the pond.

The prospect of a fiscally literate leader has begun to calm financial markets and make them feel slightly better about the UK. Johnson and Truss sought cheap points in vilifying civil servants and received hostility in return. Sunak was a minister respected by his officials. Allies later claimed that he had not taken a holiday during his two years as chancellor. After his defenestration, Boris Johnson took three holidays before saying he wanted to run again for the prime minister’s office. He was often absent at crucial times when he held the office. The polls have improved for the Tory party and Sunak almost ties with Starmer in popularity for the time being. However, if a general election were held tomorrow, Labour would probably score a convincing win.

The Economist is not convinced by Sunak: “Competence ought to be a given, not an ambition. Even if his government provides stability, that is nowhere near enough. Productivity growth has disappointed for years; Britain is the only G7 economy still below pre-pandemic levels of output. Impoverished expectations lead to a more impoverished country.”

PMQs

At his first PMQs on October 26, Sunak acknowledged his new relationship with opposition leader Keir Starmer and said while it was important to have “robust” debate during the weekly PMQs, he hoped they would be conducted in a sensible manner. He performed well in the sense that he did not waffle like Johnson and spoke more confidently than Truss. It did not last long. When asked to justify the reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary after she was sacked for breaking the ministerial code, he resorted to unsubstantiated ad hominem jibes about the leader of the opposition’s stance on crime. The Tories have traditionally presented themselves as being tough on crime. This is belied by the fact that they have cut police numbers and police no longer bother to investigate a lot of crimes, more concerned about pronouns than rape or burglary. Some police have actually increased the rape statistics by attacking women themselves. Starmer gently reminded the new PM that he ran the crown prosecution service (CPS) for five years, so calling him soft on crime was bizarre.

Sunak also resorted to Johnson’s tactic of spouting random statistics rather than answering the question. He did not answer a single question, apart from telling Caroline Lucas that fracking would not be pursued. He took a leaf from Suella Braverman’s playbook by insinuating that there was something inherently sinister about living in North London, implying that it was as bad as owing allegiance to North Korea. This is pure silliness from someone who has been welcomed as the “grown up in the room.” Sunak’s slickness can be undermined by an inherent geekiness. The 42-year-old can come across as a nerdish 15-year-old in a school debating competition. Marina Hyde described him as, “the Conservative party’s idea of a cool person.”

Starmer scored a palpable hit when he referred to a leaked video in which Sunak boasted to Conservative party members in Tunbridge Wells that as Chancellor took public money out of “deprived urban areas” to help wealthy towns like Tunbridge Wells.

The after-feeling about the duel was that Sunak  seemed like a clever performer for about half an hour until you thought more carefully about the substance or lack of it and waited for many more stories  to break. The same old same old jousting is not sustainable.

Covid Criminals and Cronies

Sunak was popular during the Covid crisis because he released money to support people whose livelihoods were threatened. However, it was not all positive. He presided over Covid schemes mired in billions of pounds of waste, cronyism and in some cases outright corruption and criminality. The bounce back loan scheme’s hasty launch meant criminals helped themselves to billions of pounds at the taxpayer’s expense. Billions of fraudulent claims were written off while foreign aid was cut.

Suella Braverman

Why did Sunak bring Suella Braverman back as Home Secretary only six days after she was sacked for a breach of security? Labour and the Liberal Democrats called for a Cabinet Office inquiry into national security concerns after Braverman was reinstated despite admitting leaking official documents, which government sources said was a “serious breach”.

She had emailed proposals from her ministerial account to her personal account and then attempted to send them on to Sir John Hayes, a fellow member of the European Research Group and the Common Sense Group. Hayes has been a Braverman confidant for many years. Both believe severe cuts in even legal immigration is a crucial issue for the Conservative party. She made a ridiculous speech about “the Anti-growth coalition“ but disagreed (vehemently) with Truss about the importance to growth of easing immigration restrictions at a time of labour and skill shortages. “She doesn’t make any decision without consulting John Hayes.” Some have painted Hayes as a Svengali who has been influential in her rise from backbencher to a great office of state.

The official line has been that she made a mistake which she reported to Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case. While trying to copy in Hayes’s wife, she mistakenly sent the email  to a staff member working for another backbencher, Andrew Percy. She claimed to have been out on a police raid at 4 a.m. and did not have the government phone with her. Sources said the timestamp on the email showed it was sent several hours after the police raid. Andrew Percy informed the chief whip of the breach. The chief whip passed the information on to Case. Case was reported to be “livid” over her swift return. A government insider said: “She only owned up to it when she was confronted with the evidence.” Rather than coming forward herself about what had happened, she was challenged by Case.

When she was attorney general, she was part of a leak inquiry that raised “concern” in MI5. She has moved from Cruella to Leaky Sue. Mark Pritchard, a Tory MP and former member of parliament’s intelligence and security committee, said MI5 needed confidence in the home secretary and any breakdown in that relationship was bad for the government and the security services. “It needs to be sorted ASAP,” he said.

Four Conservative MPs and a former home secretary publicly raised concerns over her reappointment. Former party chairman Jake Berry said, “To me, that seems a really serious breach, especially when it was documents relating to cyber security, as I believe.” The sole hope now, according to some Sunak allies is that Braverman makes a further error and goes for good — leaving Sunak and her deputy Robert Jenrick to press on peacefully in her absence. 

Braverman has long been known to have a complex relationship with the truth. John Crace wrote in the Guardian, “She has yet to find a rule that applies to her. Amazingly, she’s supposed to be a lawyer.” She wrote about herself on the ConservativeHome website: “When I was involved in my University Conservative branch at Cambridge in the early 2000s, Blair-supporting friends were constantly baffled by my political allegiance. Starting my career as a young barrister in London, I was the shy Tory in my Chambers of ‘right-on’ human rights lawyers.” In fact, the chambers dealt with mundane matters not human rights and included a former Tory MP. When she moved on to a large set of Birmingham barristers, her profile boasted that she was a “contributor to Philip Kolvin QC’s book Gambling for Local Authorities, Licensing, Planning and Regeneration (2007)”. Braverman’s name does not appear anywhere in the volume. She claimed to have acted for “the Ministry of Defence in the Guantánamo Bay inquiry”. Investigative journalists have failed to find any record of her involvement.

Her excuses for the breach do not impress Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary. Braverman ran from the Commons when she was due to answer Ms Cooper’s charges. Replying for the government, the paymaster general, Jeremy Quin, was unable to say whether the home secretary had been given full security clearance. The Speaker did nothing. Ms Cooper said Braverman’s appointment contradicted Sunak’s promise to bring “integrity, professionalism and accountability” back to government. Do we want a Home Secretary who lies about her CV and admits to doing stupid things when tired. Ian Blackford of the SNP referred to a “sleazy backroom deal.” John Crace in the Guardian: “But the reality is he’s not so different from any other Tory leader. Party before country. Self before party. Always open to any grubby backroom deal if it works to his advantage.”

News just through that she has  rejected all the recommendations  in a damning report published in July following a two-year inquiry into the small boats crisis.

Sir Gavin Williamson

There was surprise, and possibly jollity, at the news that Sir Gavin Williamson was returning to government as Minister without Portfolio. The former fireplace salesman has often shown himself to be Minister without a Clue. He has frequently been called “Private Pike” after the dumb and sulky youth in Dad’s Army. To my mind he is more like the cretinous accident-prone Frank Spencer played by Michael Crawford in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Out of the fireplace into politics. While he was managing director of fireplace firm Elgin & Hall in 2004, Sir Gavin had an affair with a married colleague. The Sunday Telegraph reported that a senior co-worker stated that the woman involved was in tears when reporting the relationship to her line manager and that Williamson was subsequently the subject of a meeting with managers. Days after this meeting, he left the firm. The fireplace world’s loss was the nation’s gain.

He made a certain impression as Chief Whip. Some likened him to Francis Urquhart, the ruthless parliamentary enforcer in Westminster TV drama House of Cards. “I don’t very much believe in the stick, but it’s amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot.” He kept a tarantula called Cronus in a glass box on his desk, seemingly to intimidate MPs who thought of rebelling. One cabinet minister described him as a “chop-your-head-off type of man”. Many Tory backbenchers were not impressed and regarded him as a merely a slippery government toady who has deliberately cultivated a Machiavellian image. When he made his U-turn on A-level results, Williamson was photographed with large bullwhip on his desk, with a red notebook balanced on top of it. A theory was advanced that the whip was there to remind people that he used to be the Chief Whip. The red notebook was there to remind people that he has recorded where the bodies are buried.

Williamson served in Theresa May’s Cabinet as Secretary of State for Defence from 2017 to 2019, and as Secretary of State for Education under Boris Johnson from 2019 to 2021. As defence secretary he caused anger and hilarity. He dined with Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former Putin minister, in exchange for a £30,000 donation to the Conservative party. Later that month, he said that Jeremy Corbyn had betrayed his country by, during the 1980s, meeting a Czech diplomat who was later revealed to be a spy. After the Salisbury poisoning, he said “frankly, Russia should go away, and it should shut up”. Putin must have been very scared. Williamson supported the Saudi Arabian-led military intervention in Yemen against the Shia Houthis despite concerns from human rights activists and Labour MPs about war crimes allegedly committed by the Saudi military. He was sacked as Defence Secretary, following a leak from the National Security Council; Williamson denied leaking the information about Huawei’s potential involvement in the British 5G network.

He caused a lot of grief when he was education secretary at the height of the covid crisis. There was a great deal of confusion and anxiety about A levels because of Williamson’s indecision and incompetence. I am surprised that, in a cabinet of all the talents, room can be found for Williamson but not Chris “Failing” Grayling.

Labour MP, Stephen Kinnock, asked Sunak at PMQs on October 26, 2022: “did he seek or receive any advice on security concerns about the right honourable member for South Staffordshire (Mr Williamson) before his appointment to the Government yesterday, given that he was sacked in 2019 for leaking sensitive information relating to our national security?” The Prime Minister replied: “He is talking about events that happened four years ago. It is right that he raised the topic of national security because members opposite four years ago were busily supporting the member for Islington North, who wanted to abolish the nuclear deterrent, who wanted to leave Nato, and who wanted to scrap our armed forces.” A non-answer that Boris Johnson would have been proud of.

A former minister said of Sir Gavin, “The man is poison. A lot of colleagues are concerned about it. I think it risks damaging Rishi as he tries to unite the party.” Williamson was a key supporter of Mr Sunak’s leadership campaign and some Tory MPs claim the new PM has rewarded him with a job in return for his loyalty, rather than his scant ability.A senior Tory MP said: “the person who has been sacked by two prime ministers and was perhaps the worst Cabinet minister in living memory when he was Education Secretary has been brought back.”

Equality and Levelling Up

Sunak promised, “I will unite our country, not with words, but with action,” Good luck with that. It is notable that more than three-quarters of the cabinet are men. However, all seven of the female ministers are in senior ministerial roles – including the new attorney general, Victoria Prentis – meaning they will attend as “full” cabinet members. Under Truss, for the first time, none of the four great offices of state (prime minister, chancellor, home secretary and foreign secretary) were held by a white male. With 16% of Sunak’s cabinet of a minority background, this means it is more representative than the broader population.

However, Government ministers are eight times more likely to have been privately educated than the general population. More than half of the new cabinet (58%), including Sunak himself, attended private schools, compared with only 7% of the British population. The proportion of Oxbridge alumni is higher than the one-third in Liz Truss’s first cabinet.

Nine cabinet ministers represent the Tory-strong south-east, a region which has nine ministers in the cabinet – 29% of the total – meaning the region is more than twice as well-represented than its proportion of the UK population (13.7%). The east of England, which has six cabinet members, and the south-west (five) are over-represented by similar margins. Not one of the 31 members of the cabinet represents a London constituency. There are no cabinet ministers from north eastern constituencies and none from red wall constituencies.

Elusive Unity

Sunak has a very small window to reverse the party’s fortunes before he is defenestrated. He has taken over a Tory parliamentary party which may well be ungovernable and unable to govern. A large section of the party is addicted to dissent. The membership is even worse, described by a former aide of David Cameron as “swivel-eyed loonies”. Politically, Sunak is a contradiction. He is a rightwing Conservative, a Brexiteer as a teenager, who has relied on the centre and left of the party for his support and has been called a socialist (by outgoing business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Channel 4 presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy was suspended for referring to arch Brexiteer MP Steve Baker by a name that rhymes with Hunt but starts with a ‘C’. Baker is currently supporting Sunak but still has that mad fundamentalist look in his eyes that suggests he is always ready for a righteous fight. He played a prominent role in ousting two previous prime ministers. Ominously for Sunak, on the day he became Conservative leader Baker’s European Reform Group could not agree about endorsing Sunak. Sunak is under pressure from the rightwing to scrap post-Brexit trading rules with Northern Ireland, thus further poisoning relations with the EU. It will be difficult to achieve growth without the EU as a trading partner and friend but Sunak has always been a Brexiteer.

“The new found unity in the Tory party was only skin deep. Wendy Morton, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kit Malthouse – all newly returned to the backbenches – remained completely silent throughout. Jake Berry, the former party chairman, was absent. Missing, presumed disloyal. Last seen writing a tweet trashing Sunak.”

Warring Tory tribes have been brought together around the cabinet table. Sunak brought Braverman back to appease the right-wingers in his party because he inherits a deeply fractured party facing decisions on issues such as spending and immigration that will never go away.  Truss wanted to ease immigration rules in order to promote growth by bringing people in to compensate for labour shortages but Braverman spent 90 minutes berating her for such a plan. Whatever it is, someone will be against it. It is doubtful if Conservatives have any capacity to become once again a serious party of government.

Conservative MPs who support Sunak are urging him to crack down on the right-wing of the party and extirpate the influence of Boris Johnson.One MP said that after the failure of Johnson’s leadership bid, “we can get rid of these shits now”. Another accused Johnson of “poundshop Trumpian bullshit” . Sunak’s allies expect him to carry out a fresh reshuffle next year, removing lukewarm ministers such as Braverman and Ben Wallace.

The Economist thinks the problem has moved on from addiction to a taste for human sacrifice. James Ball in the New European goes further. “The Conservative Party, having become political cannibals, will not soon forget the taste of blood. Once the spoils of Rishi’s rise have been distributed, those who have been left out will be waiting to strike from the shadows.”

Sunak’s Black Hole

There is a £40 billion (some say more) black hole in the UK’s finances. The situation was exacerbated by Truss’s little experiment. Strikes will continue as workers face effective cuts in pay because of inflation. There will be cuts in those public services that are already desperately strained. Energy bills will need supporting. NHS waiting lists stand at seven million and people who have a heart attack wait for an hour for an ambulance. If military spending is cut Sunak will face the resignation of Ben Wallace who did not support him in the leadership contest but remains as defence secretary, presumably after some promises being made. Taxes may rise alongside brutal cuts – a deadly combination.  Sunak has dropped his pledge to fine patients £10 if they miss a GP or hospital appointment.

The Economist: “The rot in the Conservative Party did not begin with Ms Truss. Britain’s departure from the EU, which Mr Sunak supported, is the thing that acts as a handbrake on the country’s economic prospects. Mr Johnson’s chaotic reign, which he also supported, caused even more ruin. It is the Conservative Party’s failure to take on its supporters that does so much damage to the country. Mr Sunak may be the only available man to fix the government’s errors. But he also helped make them.”

Those who extol Sunak’s fiscal expertise forget that he has been a fan of Brexit since his adolescence. Brexit has placed Britain in a financial mess that has been exacerbated by Covid, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Truss’s bombshell. Sunak was comfortable with a “no deal” Brexit so long as Britain actually left the EU. Sunak has pledged a more constructive relationship with the bloc. Better not to have broken the relationship in the first place. Sunak has advocated low-tax “freeports”, which shuffle economic activity around rather than generating it.

As chancellor, Sunak championed the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme when the government in effect paid unvaccinated people to sit together during a pandemic and infect each other. Mr Sunak pushed the Royal Mint to issue a non-fungible token this summer, just as the market for these digital assets crashed. He is not as clever as some people would like to  think he is.

Environment

Liz Truss told King Charles not to attend Cop 27. Sunak said he is not going. The British president of the COP26 climate summit Alok Sharma said on Friday that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government should explore extending a windfall tax on oil and gas firms in a fiscal statement next month. He has been shuffled out of the Sunak’s cabinet and will not be attending the conference. Graham Stuart remains Minister of State for Climate but no longer sits in cabinet.New environment secretary Therese Coffey will be attending. When asked for some ideas about saving the planet she mentioned reusable cups.

According to Byline Times, Rishi Sunak has received £141,000 from individuals and companies with financial ties to the oil and gas sectors.The party Sunak now leads has itself directly received £1.3 million in donations from fossil fuel interests and climate sceptics between December 2019 and October 2021.”Those who donated to Sunak are not accused of wrongdoing and it is not suggested that his premiership will be beholden to fossil fuel interests. But it is clear that the Conservative Party and its leaders have a financial reliance on these corporate interests – which may filter through to Government policy, especially given the party’s history of awarding exclusive access to ministers in exchange for donations.”

Sunak says that pressure of urgent work on the economic crisis prevents him from going to Egypt for Cop27 but he will be finding time to go to Qatar for the FIFA World Cup thus lending his support to the brutal Qatari regime.

Centrist Conservatives were delighted by the return of Andrew Mitchell, a veteran of the David Cameron era, to oversee foreign aid spending. “We need more old heads giving advice,” a former Cabinet minister said. “Part of the problem recently is there have been too many young’uns making decisions.” How long will Mitchell last if Sunak is determined to cut aid?

Sunak was criticised for slashing the foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income when he was chancellor, as well as setting a precedent for letting the Home Office and other departments use the money, and stretching the rules on what can be counted as aid.Ranil Dissanayake, a policy fellow at CGD (Centre for Global Development), said: “The development budget – the pot of money we put aside to help the world’s poorest people – is being squeezed from every angle…Saying we spend 0.5% of our national income on aid is becoming meaningless, when such a huge proportion of this pot is being spent domestically, rather than on helping people facing enormous hardship across the world.”

Disadvantages of Wealth

Sunak is the first British prime minister to be richer than the monarch. This is not a political plus at a time when many people who were not so long ago quite comfortably off are now struggling to pay their fuel bills.  The cost of some basic food items has risen by almost two-thirds in a year. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has set up an advisory panel which includes Rupert Harrison, who was the architect of George Osborne’s austerity programme.

People will find it difficult to see Sunak as “one of us” and this is not just about race. In April 2022, he admitted he had held a US green card until the previous year and he has a luxurious home in California. James Ball in the New European: “It is quite something to do the finances for a country you claim to regard as a temporary residence (despite, of course, having been born here).” He was forced to admit that his wife had benefited from non-domiciled status, allowing her to avoid UK tax on her foreign earnings while he was chancellor.

If austerity measures are introduced and public services are cut even more savagely, people will be resentful about being told to tighten their belts by a man whose own belts probably cost thousands of pounds. In his PMQ answers, he used the word “compassionate” a lot to describe the Conservative Party but his cabinet choices and the response of ordinary people suggest that “brutal” is a more apt description of the nasty party.

Tough choices will have to be made about wages, on spending and on taxes. These kinds of policies are always difficult  to push through. According to James Ball “they are much harder when the man asking everyone to share the pain has a familial net worth of £700m. Given how little Sunak enjoys discussion of such matters, he is likely to find the winter ghastly.”

There is opposition to austerity from many quarters. The head of the Confederation of British Industry, Tony Danker, has warned Sunak against pursuing an austerity “doom loop” of cuts to public spending and tax rises. He suggested that swingeing cuts to public spending could undermine the government’s ambition to grow the economy. Recent polls have repeatedly shown that voters want increased spending on public services and would welcome a general election. The Tories are consumed with the party’s own existential dilemma to the exclusion of actually governing or seeking a genuine mandate for today’s circumstances.

Stephen Bush wrote in the Financial Times: “Ultimately, Sunak has formed a government with an exclusive focus on being able to pass austere budgets. He needs to find a way to make his political messaging line up with that, too. “ It is  far from clear whether Sunak’s irreconcilable opponents are ready to accept any sort of budget at all from whatever  leader the system might throw up. That the Conservatives’ new leader can’t yet point to a transformation in the party’s fortunes may make it harder still to persuade his fractious party to back difficult measures in his budget. The party could be irredeemably ruined — whoever is in charge.