I know, I know. Britain’s problems haven’t been magicked away just because a man with great suits and a Stanford MBA has become prime minister. But it’s a relief to look forward to the first weekend in a while where we don’t all have to follow every twist and turn of politics.
Rishi Sunak’s arrival in Downing Street has already had a calming effect on the markets. Wednesday was a historic moment, not just because Britain has proudly anointed its first British-Asian prime minister. It was also the first time since 2015 that we have had two grown-ups facing each other across the House of Commons despatch box. Sunak vs Starmer may prove less entertaining than Cameron vs Corbyn or Johnson vs Starmer, but “nerd vs nerd” will be a lot more reassuring.
The rollercoaster of the past few months has ended with a very British coup. Conservative MPs spat out Liz Truss after only 44 days in office and backed Sunak in overwhelming numbers, rejecting Boris Johnson’s flirtation.
The big question now is how he and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, will restore economic stability. Hunt’s assured performance since taking the job has already lowered the UK’s long-term borrowing costs — as well as helping bring his colleagues to their senses. But the state of the public finances makes it impossible to meet the 2019 promises of freezing taxes and putting more money into public services.
Sunak and Hunt have until November 17 to pore over spreadsheets and finesse the detail (not a phrase I could have written about Johnson). Both have spoken about “compassionate conservatism” and the need to protect the vulnerable. The broadest shoulders must surely bear the biggest burden.
This should mean reinstating the national insurance rise that Sunak had planned as chancellor — the second iteration of which hit the rich hardest. It should also mean ending the universal triple-lock on the state pension while boosting pension credit for the worst-off. This is a huge flashpoint in a party whose members are predominantly over 50. But a prime minister must govern for the whole country — and Sunak emphasised in his acceptance speech that he did not want to see the young burdened with debt.
Tax rises are inevitable. But there is a narrative available which could help defray the burden. The is a war in Europe and we need to curb energy use, and with Shell’s CEO ready to “embrace” taxes as he posted the highest quarterly profits for a century, a full-throated windfall tax on energy companies might not deter investment. The Conservatives should not be allergic to adopting what now looks like a sensible policy, being pursued across Europe, just because it was a Labour idea.
A staunch cabinet will be needed to see this through. With the party an uneasy coalition of factions, Sunak’s ecumenical appointments look pretty deft. His reappointment of Suella Braverman, who was forced to quit only a few days before as home secretary, is controversial. Braverman may yet blow herself up, but she is a standard-bearer of the right. His greater mistake may prove to be not giving a bigger job to his rival Penny Mordaunt.
With two prefects in charge (Sunak and Hunt were both head boys) and the experienced Oliver Dowden running the Cabinet Office, the UK is bouncing back into something that looks remarkably like competent government. I was pleased to hear that Keir Starmer is practising to be PM by working through the equivalent of a red box every day: Johnson, I am reliably informed, rarely finished his. There are issues piling up that need diligent attention: passengers stranded by the West Coast railway line; pending strikes; growing numbers of people under 60 not looking for work. Over and above looms the NHS backlog, creating misery and draining the economy.
With no cash to spare, Sunak will also need to consider public service reform. He has spoken convincingly in the past about education as a “silver bullet” for improving lives — including AI in learning, vocational skills and a broad, “British baccalaureate” curriculum.
Historically, Conservatives have liked to think their role in politics is to clear up the mess of the public finances made by Labour. But the current mess is their own. Truss blew up Britain’s reputation for competence, but since Brexit, the word that dare not speak its name, the UK’s trade deficit has ballooned despite sterling’s decline.
Sunak is no Davos man: he was a committed Leaver, who wants immigration control; a libertarian who argued against prolonging Covid lockdowns. But as chancellor he was always keen to be honest about trade-offs. He should, at the very least, adopt a more constructive tone with EU allies — and let King Charles bat for Britain at COP27.
Being tough to stereotype may help blunt some of the attacks on his wealth. It’s worth remembering that David Cameron, who was also rich and privately educated, was elected with an enhanced majority in 2015 after presiding over five years of austerity. The country is more likely to judge Sunak on the fortunes of the economy, and whether his government has integrity. On November 17, the honeymoon will be over.