Rishi Sunak is a Prime Minister Who isScared of His Own Citizens
The UK’s new Prime Minister leads a Government which is terrified of consulting the very people he was appointed to lead, writes Adam Bienkov
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It has become a cliche to talk about the ‘Westminster bubble’ and decry our politicians as being dangerously out of touch with the public. While some are, the average backbench Member of Parliament probably has a better sense of what the public really thinks about the world than most commentators will ever have.
Yet over the past few years there has been an increasing otherworldliness about those at the top of the Conservative Party. In the past three months alone the party has given us not one, but three different Prime Ministers, each of which has appeared to be even more dangerously detached from the public than the last.
Boris Johnson, who was initially hailed for his ability to connect with voters, ended up destroying his own premiership due to his own vanity. His reckless disregard for his own Covid rules, and his contempt for the rule of law, ended in him being investigated both by Parliament and the police. The supreme arrogance of a man thrown out by his own party, then jetting in from his Caribbean retreat just three months later in a vainglorious attempt to snatch his job back, sums up quite how far he eventually fell.
Yet while Johnson gradually lost touch with his own voters, Liz Truss never even found them in the first place. Beginning her premiership with a pledge to be deliberately unpopular, she quickly delivered on her promise. Her disastrous mini-budget which wiped billions of pounds off the UK economy and left millions of people thousands of pounds worse off, led to a historic collapse in support for the Conservative party. According to some recent polls, the party would lose every seat they currently hold in the House of Commons were a general election held today.
Taken against that backdrop, the emergence of Rishi Sunak as the Conservative Party’s third Prime Minister in as many months, has led to some optimism among its MPs that they may have turned a corner. At a private meeting inside Parliament on Monday, Sunak was greeted by his colleagues with a loud banging of desks, applause and even wolf whistles. As they left the wood-panelled room inside the Palace of Westminster, some Tory MPs celebrated that the “grown ups” were now back in charge of the party.
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Yet in many ways the appointment of Sunak merely sums up quite how much further detached the party has become from the people it is meant to represent. Rejected by their own members in the summer, Sunak was not so much elected by his own party, as put in place by acclamation. At a private meeting of party bigwigs last week, officials agreed upon a set of rules which were quite obviously designed to stitch up the process in Sunak’s favour. The high threshold of nominations required to get into the contest resulted in many potential candidates failing to even come forward, let alone make it through to the first round. Meanwhile the rapid timetable meant that the whole process was wrapped up without the frontrunner bothering to take part in a single interview, debate, or even make a single policy pledge.
Seemingly frightened of the very members who had rejected him in the summer, Sunak instead kept himself hidden away over the past six weeks while patiently waiting for his inevitable turn in Number 10. If he had a public campaign at all, it was run by his supporters in the British press, with senior figures in the industry calling on Conservative MPs to reject Sunak’s rival Boris Johnson and instead back the man “who the markets trust”.
There is a reason for that trust. While much of the coverage of Sunak’s rise to power has focused, understandably, on his racial background, it is his financial background which is his real defining feature. A former Goldman Sachs banker and hedge-funder, Sunak is the not only the wealthiest member of Parliament, but also one of the wealthiest people in the entire country. His wife, whose tax affairs hit the headlines earlier this year, is reportedly worth more than the King. When Sunak is described as a “safe pair of hands” it is this background, rather than any inherent administrative ability that his backers are talking about.
That is not to say that he is a fool, of course. Unlike his immediate predecessor, he saw early on that Truss’ plan to make massive unfunded spending cuts would trigger severe financial instability in the UK economy. His furlough scheme, which prevented millions of businesses going under during the pandemic, was also hugely popular. Yet a brief look beyond the surface of these achievements reveals a record of a chancellor who presided over Covid schemes mired in billions of pounds of waste, cronyism and in some cases outright corruption.
And while Sunak yesterday pledged to serving the British people, you don’t have to look far to see where his real loyalties may lie. The tax avoidance schemes pursued by his wife and the revelation that he possessed a US green card while an MP (which required him to declare himself a permanent resident of the country) show how distant he really is from the people he has been appointed to lead.
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A Government Delaying the Inevitable
The relief many appear to feel about Sunak’s appointment, after many months of chaos under Truss and Johnson, is understandable. His calm manner and slick appearance will reassure some that we may be heading for less turbulent times ahead. Yet while the UK is heading into a deep recession, the policies likely to be pursued by our new Prime Minister risk only making matters worse. Under his likely Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, the party is committed to making deep cuts to public spending which will not only cause real damage to already overstretched public services, but will also sap even more money from the economy, leading to a vicious cycle of further cuts, and further stalled growth.
If that does happen, it will not be out of any great demand from the British public. Recent polls have repeatedly shown that voters actually want increased spending on public services, while also hoping for an early general election.
Instead the Conservative party plans to provide us with the complete opposite. Not only is Sunak set to push ahead with deeply unpopular cuts, but he has also ruled out asking the public about it at the ballot box, declaring to his party’s MPs on Monday that doing so would pose an “existential” threat to their future.
The net result is a Government which is now being propped up by an unelected leader, and his supporters in the press, while the public are instead given the role of mere baffled spectators. While the Conservative Party switches from one leader to another, the rest of us watch on as they take decisions which we neither want, nor have been given the opportunity to reject.
Like passengers watching increasingly battered suitcases cases emerging on an airport baggage carousel, only to disappear again moments later, we stand by powerlessly hoping that what we are actually looking for will eventually emerge from behind the plastic curtains.
While it is easy to mock the events of recent weeks, we remain in a deeply dangerous political situation. As it has become increasingly detached from the people it is meant to serve, this Government has also resorted to increasingly authoritarian measures to stamp down on those who dare to express their dissent. The Public Order Bill, which passed through the House of Commons last week, is some of the most worryingly repressive pieces of legislation pursued by any government in the western world. Under this Bill, protesters, who have not even broken the law, could be banned from taking part in future protests and even have their movements tracked with ankle tags. And while ministers have spent much of their time in recent years talking about “free speech” on university campuses, protesters will have their own free speech repressed both on the streets and online.
It remains to be seen whether this latest Prime Minister who has been presented to us, will retreat from this agenda, although comments he made during this summer’s leadership campaign suggest it is unlikely.
Yet whatever agenda he does pursue, he will pursue it without any of us being consulted first. The Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto, which promised higher public spending and higher wages, has been junked in favour of a new agenda which will deliver real terms cuts to pay and public services.
In the meantime we are left with an unelected prime minister, who appears terrified of consulting the very people who he has been unilaterally appointed to lead. Unless that changes, the hopes of a new era of stability under Rishi Sunak, are likely to be rapidly dashed.