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Make or Break: Will Rishi Sunak be Able to Tackle the Conservatives’ Many Political Divides?

Brexit, immigration, ‘Global Britain’, energy and austerity – former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall sets out the challenges ahead for Britain’s latest Prime Minister

Conservative MP Rishi Sunak becomes his party’s new leader. Photo: Guy Bell/Alamy

Make or BreakWill Rishi Sunak be Able to Tackle the Conservatives’ Many Political Divides?

Brexit, immigration, ‘Global Britain’, energy and austerity – former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall sets out the challenges ahead for Britain’s latest Prime Minister

Anyone who has ever travelled by small boat knows that anxious moment when you have one foot safely aboard and one foot still on dry land… and the boat starts to drift slightly away from the shore. Unless you jump nimbly fully into the boat or jump backwards onto dry land, you risk landing with an undignified splash in the water.

I used to use that analogy to explain to my Brexit-supporting friends some of the risks around Britain leaving the EU – that unless it handled the departure deftly, and had a clear idea of where it wanted to land, it could end up falling with a splash somewhere in the mid-Atlantic; floundering alone in the deep, unmoored from both the EU and the US, and extremely vulnerable to the hostile sharks in the wider world, waiting to eat us up for breakfast.

I feel the same analogy is now apt to describe the challenges facing Britain’s new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. But the danger before him now is not so much about how he positions the UK internationally – though this remains an issue – but how he manages the splits within the Conservative Party.

For Sunak inherits a political party that remains deeply divided: some still regretting the UK’s decision to leave the EU; others still agitating for even further divergence from the EU; and all of them still arguing about the direction in which the UK should now head. Trying to appease all factions is an almost impossible task.

It would be tempting for Sunak to try to park most of the political divides which bedevil his party and focus purely on the economic challenges facing the UK. But Britain got into its current mess as a result of the Conservatives’ internal divides and it will not be able to get out of its current mess unless we have a Prime Minister willing to tackle those political divides head-on.

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One of the quickest and easiest ways to boost the economy would be to end all talk of ripping up the so-called ‘EU red tape’ still on Britain’s statute books and instead agree to keep the regulations governing the UK’s economy largely aligned with the EU’s for the foreseeable future.

This would immediately reassure businesses trying to trade in both markets that they would not have to try to create products in accordance with two different sets of standards, vastly increasing their production costs. It would also restore the UK’s attractiveness as a base for international companies hoping to trade in both the UK and the EU.

It would also do much to restore market confidence in the UK if the Government ended all talk of reneging on the Northern Ireland Protocol, thereby risking a full-on trade war with the EU. Instead, Sunak could task his ministers to try to achieve a more limited renegotiation of the current deal, acceptable to both sides, to allow for some pragmatic improvements. These could be kept under review, to see how they work, with the scope to negotiate further changes down the road.

A brave Prime Minister could even declare his willingness to reconsider the terms of the overall deal with the EU when it is up for review in 2025. This could include being open to the idea of the UK rejoining the Customs Union and Single Market – which would eliminate burdensome paperwork; restore frictionless trade with the EU; help manufacturing businesses which depend on just-in-time supply chains; and support our service, scientific and creative sectors by restoring freedom of movement.

All of these suggestions would be absolute anathema to the hardline Brexit wing of the party as it stands – represented by the European Research Group of Conservative MPs. They would no doubt call it a ‘betrayal’ of the EU Referendum. Whether Sunak – a Brexiter who has peddled many of the Brexit myths himself – is even willing to pursue such a course is another question.

Yet ruling these ideas out – either out of his own ideological convictions or to assuage the ERG – would mean tackling the UK’s economic problems with one hand behind his back. The ERG had a chance to prove the viability of its prescriptions under Liz Truss and the market response was very clear. The ERG should not stand in the way of an alternative approach now.

Despite the ERG’s claims, there was never an explicit mandate for the very hard form of Brexit that we currently have – and no democratic reason why the current terms cannot be changed.

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Immigration and Energy

Another area where the new Prime Minister faces hard choices is over immigration. Even Liz Truss recognised that, in order to remain competitive, the UK economy needs to be able to attract both the best international talent and a supply of cheap labour, to staff vital parts of the economy that have relied on this – such as the health, care, hospitality and farming sectors.

But any moves to relax immigration would be deeply opposed by those who supported Brexit as a way to regain ‘control’ over our borders and reduce immigration. Again, if he is truly focused on rescuing the economy, Sunak must resist the temptation to pander to the anti-immigrant wing of his party.

One of the most ludicrous decisions of many taken by Truss in her disastrous time in office was her categoric refusal to encourage energy-saving measures by the Government, private sector or the public. Whereas countries in Europe have launched many successful initiatives to reduce their energy consumption – by requiring businesses to turn off lights at night, city councils to dim street lights, and ordinary citizens to adjust their thermostats, for instance – Truss’ Government insisted it would not foist such choices on the UK.

This was derided as being a form of the ‘nanny state’ – much in the same way many Conservatives oppose using public money to encourage people to make healthier dietary choices, even though the UK is facing an obesity epidemic.

Truss’ refusal to encourage energy-saving was particularly self-defeating, since it would only increase the cost of her Government’s much-heralded energy subsidy scheme and the likelihood of energy blackouts over the winter.

Some in the party also continue to oppose new investments in green energy, as a sort of ‘wishy-washy’ leftist scheme – even though this would help wean Britain off the dangerous fossil fuels which are destroying our planet and reduce our dependence on the authoritarian regimes which are a large source of our oil and gas.

Why would any rational government not do all three: support those most in need of help with their energy bills, boost investment in green energy, and introduce every possible measure to keep overall energy consumption down?

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Global Positioning and More Austerity

Many of those who supported Brexit fantasised that our small islands would become a kind of global supertanker – unmoored from Europe, roaming the high seas, negotiating new free trade deals across the world which would supposedly more than compensate for the lost trade with the EU. We would also be free to act more independently on foreign and security policy, reaching far beyond Europe, and leveraging our connections through the UN, NATO, the G20 and the Commonwealth to become a global security power.

Unfortunately, reality dictates that we cannot discard geography. Whether we like it or not, our political, economic and security fate remains most closely intertwined with that of Europe – as the war in Ukraine has so vividly shown. Our biggest value to partners like the US is for us to remain strong, active and engaged within Europe – not for us to try to become a sort of US mini-me, poodling along in America’s shadow everywhere else.

Rishi Sunak would be wise to drop the overblown rhetoric about ‘Global Britain’, stop trying to pretend the EU does not exist, and focus on restoring the UK as a constructive player with and within Europe.

He might usefully signal a change in tone by making his first international phone calls as Prime Minister to European leaders, rather than to the US President, as is traditional. I suspect President Joe Biden would not take offence.

In many ways, the hardest area in which Sunak will have to make decisions is where to make spending cuts.

During my time in the Foreign Office, one constant frustration among officials was the refusal of successive ministers to prioritise where Britain should focus its diplomatic efforts. No matter what the budgetary pressures, incoming foreign secretaries always wanted to launch high-profile new initiatives, host important international gatherings, and open new embassies and consulates. The mantra was always that we should be able to do ‘better with less’. In practice, more often than not, what happened was that we did ‘worse with less’ and over-stretched officials were unable to cope when true emergencies arose, as was demonstrated by the chaotic handling of the UK’s departure from Afghanistan.

If Sunak’s Government continues to regard the conflict in Ukraine as the biggest strategic challenge of the moment, it is going to have to deprioritise the UK’s role in other conflicts and challenges around the world to free up the necessary funds and staffing capacity to keep supporting Ukraine appropriately. That may mean taking unpalatable decisions on other aspects of our aid or defence budgets or our efforts in the Asia Pacific or Latin America. But to govern is to choose: as a mid-sized power with a struggling economy, we cannot have our international cake and eat it.

The same applies, of course, in spades, to domestic policy and spending. For those more on the left of the party, international aid, welfare or other such cuts are heresy. Fracking is unpopular. We face a critical housing shortage, yet many continue to object to new housing developments in their constituencies. Private health care continues to be regarded in some quarters as almost immoral, even as the NHS is buckling under the demands put upon it. Others insist we must maintain or increase spending on education or tackling crime or developing infrastructure. None are willing to say what they would give up.

No spending cuts or policy shifts are popular or easy to sell, and Sunak must avoid any perception that he is so focused on reassuring the markets that he overlooks ordinary people. The cost of living crisis means help has to be sustained for the most in need.

Yet, if he is to have any chance of success as Prime Minister, Sunak will have to tackle ideological sacred cows on both the left and right wings of his party. He will have to be ruthless about maintaining Cabinet discipline and unity. He will have to be more honest towards his own MPs and the wider public than any of his four predecessors about the hard choices we face, including those generated by Brexit.

I don’t envy him this task. Given his Brexiter past and the reports that he plans to include some of the most outspoken and divisive figures in the party in his Cabinet, I cannot say I am entirely optimistic. But perhaps, where instinct does not lead, the dire circumstances we are in will. If he does not face these difficult political issues head-on, the UK will continue to flounder in very choppy waters.

Rishi Sunak must be the bold captain of his ship, not allow mutiny in his ranks, and keep his sights set on where he wants to land.

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