Rishi Sunak’s Party Fears there is Less to Him than Meets the Eye
The Prime Minister’s colleagues are starting to wonder whether Sunak’s Californian corporate sheen conceals an empty vessel, reports Adam Bienkov
There was a bizarre moment during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday that tells you a lot about the sort of politician Rishi Sunak really is.
Faced with a barrage of criticism from Keir Starmer over his handling of the Gavin Williamson bullying scandal, Sunak retreated to the safety of his briefing notes and for an alarming moment seemed to forget exactly where he was.
For what was in reality just a few seconds after Starmer finished his question, but which felt much, much longer, Sunak’s attention remained rooted on his lap.
You can watch the moment as his colleagues’ faces switched from composure to confusion, to borderline horror, as they realised that the Prime Minister was somehow unaware that he had to stand up and answer the question.
Indeed it was only after a verbal reminder from Dominic Raab and a literal jab between the shoulder blades from a Government whip sat beside him, that Sunak eventually reanimated.
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Taken alone, it is possible to dismiss this as the sort of strange, but forgettable moment that all of us experience from time to time. However, in the few brief occasions where Sunak has made a public appearance since becoming Prime Minister, he has demonstrated a series of similarly curious behavioural tics.
Whether it was the bizarre long pause and silent walk-off stage at the end of his victory speech, or his robotic ‘non-player character’ wave upon entering Downing Street, there has been something rather uncanny about his attempts to take on the role of the UK’s new leader.
Watching him, I am often reminded of Labour’s last prime minister, Gordon Brown. Like Sunak, Brown was a respected former Chancellor, who had been widely touted as a future Prime Minister. On paper, he seemed well-suited to the job. Yet when he eventually managed to take on the role, there was something that didn’t quite work. In interviews and public appearances, Brown became increasingly awkward and began to acquire a sort of rictus grin as he self-consciously attempted to ‘connect’ with the public and the media.
Sunak is not quite at that level. There is a basic Californian, corporate slickness to his performances that Brown could never manage. And unlike Brown, who would become visibly angered in his House of Commons exchanges with David Cameron, Sunak has if anything, the opposite problem. Faced with what was, by any standards, an incredibly biting assault on his character and leadership by Starmer yesterday, Sunak instead appeared to enter a state of meditative stupor from which he had to be almost literally woken up from.
Yet the comparison with Brown stands for reasons that go beyond presentational style. Like Brown, Sunak has become Prime Minister without any real electoral contest and like Brown, he has taken on the job adjacent to a period of economic downturn, in what appears to be the final stages of his party’s time in Government.
Yet whereas by the time Brown emerged as Prime Minister, he had already survived a decade at the top of Government, Sunak has little of the experience he will need to turn either his party’s, or the country’s, fortunes around.
This inexperience is already showing. Upon entering Downing Street, Sunak made two speeches promising to restore “integrity, professionalism and accountability” back to Government. Yet within days his decisions to appoint Suella Braverman and Gavin Williamson to his Cabinet, despite being aware of serious outstanding complaints against them, quickly destroyed this claim.
Like John Major, who promised to take the country “back to basics”, before being ripped apart by a series of sleaze scandals, Sunak’s promise to lead a morally impeccable government didn’t even last a week. Having resigned from Boris Johnson’s government just four months ago over his handling of similar scandals, Sunak appears to be making exactly the same mistakes as the man he so recently abandoned.
Inside Parliament’s corridors and bars, former loyalists are already starting to whisper fears that their man may not be quite up to the job. One former Cabinet minister and supporter of Sunak told Byline Times this week that “doubts are growing among colleagues”, following a series of lacklustre Commons performances and political missteps.
Meanwhile, those who still remain loyal to his predecessor Boris Johnson, are also starting to scent blood. Johnson loyalist and former Conservative Party Chairman Jake Berry has been instrumental in the past few weeks in elevating the seriousness of the Braverman and Williamson scandals. After a protracted period of crisis, the party’s taste for internal bloodshed is clearly not yet over.
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Doubts first began to grow about Sunak’s suitability for the job during his summer leadership campaign. Although initially the favourite, he was quickly overtaken by Truss, due in part to a series of underwhelming performances in front of Conservative Party members.
At one hustings event in Eastbourne he told a young activist that if he was given the chance again, he might have chosen to pursue a corporate career in the US instead.
Talking about the “culture” of enterprise, he had found on the West Coast in the States, Sunak said that “I think it’s incredibly inspiring and empowering… If I was a young person, I’d want to go and do something like that”.
His comments crystallised suspicions among some of his colleagues about his suitability for the job. These doubts first emerged earlier in the year when it was revealed that he had held a US green card for a long period as an MP. News of the card, which requires holders to declare an intention to be a permanent US resident, coincided with questions over the tax status of his wife and helped to create a perception among some voters that Sunak is what Theresa May once described as a “citizen of nowhere”.
This perception has not gone away. In focus groups and opinion polls, voters often describe him as being out-of-touch and Labour are already seeking to capitalise on this. During this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, several Labour MPs stood up to question whether his immense family wealth excluded him from understanding the public’s concerns. Asked about this, a source close to Starmer said that “It’s already clear that the public do see Rishi Sunak as someone who is out of touch with ordinary working people”.
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Much of this may go unnoticed by the electorate. The next election, when it comes, is unlikely to be decided on the basis of his Commons performances, his bank balance, or the make-up of his Cabinet. Yet the fact that Sunak is making so many unforced errors, so early in his premiership, does not bode well for when he has to make the really important decisions that actually will decide his future.
And those decisions are coming very soon. The choices that Sunak and his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, make next week in their autumn statement will define their Government in the same way that Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget defined Liz Truss’. As the UK heads into what the Bank of England forecasts will be the country’s longest-ever recession, the decisions Sunak and Hunt make will have deep real-life consequences for millions of people. Across the country, voters will be asked to accept higher taxes and lower-quality public services for years to come. And they will be asked to do so after a decade in which the current Government has already presided over a protracted period of low growth, stagnating wages and a crumbling public sector.
Even for the most skilful of politicians this would be a hard sell, but for a politician with the apparent limitations of Sunak, it looks near impossible.
Of course, difficult times do sometimes make a man and it is possible that at some point another jab between his shoulder blades will suddenly awaken the Prime Minister from his current meditative state.
But as each second ticks away, Sunak’s supporters are just beginning to question whether the man who is currently spending rather too long staring down at his lap, really has it in him.