By Mark Connolly
With all the grace of a bus crashing through a wall, the United Kingdom has been thrust into yet another political era – the third one this year, no less. Now-former Prime Minister Liz Truss wasn’t exactly forced out, or at least not in the same manner as Boris Johnson’s unedifying defenestration over the summer. Rather, having made so many mistakes and wrought such damage as to be beyond even the contemplation of repair, she simply acknowledged her failure, and called it a day at that. After 44 days in office – more akin to an internship than an actual job – her departure cemented her legacy as nothing more than an online meme and a potentially brilliant pub quiz question in maybe 20 years’ time: “Who was Prime Minister when Queen Elizabeth II died?”
Enter Rishi Sunak. The M.P. for the Yorkshire constituency of Richmond and former Chancellor of the Exchequer smoothly – almost nonchalantly – walked through the door of 10 Downing Street all but unopposed, and with the overwhelming backing of Tory MPs. This is a significant point: that he enjoyed the backing of almost 200 MPs suggests a deal of consensus not seen for a while, meaning he will have a much more comfortable time legislating than either Truss or Johnson. That shouldn’t be significant. Any leader enjoying an 80-seat majority in the Commons should have no trouble at all passing their agenda; so deeply divided and lacking in discipline is the current Conservative Party that commanding a majority has now become some miraculous achievement instead of a basic expectation.
He wasted no time in appointing a new cabinet – one supposedly encompassing “all the talents” of the parliamentary Conservative Party. The immediate controversy was the re-appointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, after her scandalous departure from the Truss government less than a week prior due to a security breach. Sunak’s intention was obviously to placate the right of the party, keen for tougher, more thoroughly conservative social policies. This move was confirmed by the subsequent announcement of Kemi Badenoch’s appointment to the Women and Equalities brief. The use of Braverman and Badenoch as sticking plaster to keep competing party factions just about bound together is not for their qualifying characteristics – the former broke the ministerial code and the latter thinks so highly of equality that she sought to strip same-sex couples of their equal rights to marry. Rather, these appointments read more as a cynical ploy to keep the ship afloat and put a stop to the incessant infighting. Whether this strategy works remains to be seen. But the real-world consequences of this political game were felt all too keenly, as just last week it was announced that transgender identity was to be removed from the protected categories of the 2010 Equality Act. Under Kemi Badenoch, it seems, the price for party unity will be paid by the most marginalised in society.
Beyond these glaring exceptions, however, there were few surprises when the new government was announced. As had been promised, it was the return of boring, serious men in grey suits – Dominic Raab, Oliver Dowden and Robert Jenrick have all made their way back to the front benches, with Jeremy Hunt remaining in post as Chancellor. And for the most part, it worked: the markets responded favourably to the incoming administration, with expectations of interest rate rises much lower than in early October, and gilt rates (which set the cost of government borrowing) falling from 4.7% to 4%, allowing Sunak and Hunt more room to manoeuvre. Referred to as the “dullness dividend,” this uptick in market confidence may allow the Tories to claw back what is left of their reputation as disciplined managers of the public finances.
This was the hope of the many conservatives who backed the former Chancellor against Penny Mordaunt or Boris Johnson. Andrew Neil, for example, encouraged Tory MPs to “put the country first and vote for Rishi, the man the markets trust.” Tobias Ellwood went a step further, calling for an end to the free market “experiment” of Truss and Kwarteng, and a return to “sensible, centrist government” – invoking the kind of language not seen since the Cameron days. And there are many more besides who laud this as the final repudiation of populist approaches to the economy. Tim Harford’s column in the Financial Times enthused the return to “reality” after the “cakeism of Johnson and Truss.” But that message – that Britain has had it too good for too long – will undoubtedly be a hard sell to a population bruised by nearly a decade of austerity, the fallout from the pandemic, and an economy in which real-terms wages haven’t risen in years. Scenes of well-educated and smartly-dressed government ministers taking “important” and “serious” decisions might be a reassuring aesthetic, but the underlying politics are altogether less convincing.
However much they try, the Tories simply cannot claim a legitimate mandate under the current circumstances. Many on the right of Britain’s political conversation, mostly Boris Johnson loyalists, have called Sunak’s coronation “undemocratic.” Nadine Dorries asserted it would be “impossible” to continue without seeking a fresh mandate from the people. Even more vociferously, Dan Wootton of the Daily Mail and GB News decried what he saw as a “globalist coup” against the settled will of the British people (as expressed in 2019) and of Conservative Party members (as expressed just this summer).
It is, of course, correct that Sunak’s premiership is deeply undemocratic, though just not for the reasons the Boris-backers would lay out. Giving the vote to Tory members – who make up less than 0.01% of the population – would not have been democratic; it simply would have passed the button on to a larger but significantly more right-wing group of people. Real democracy would look like a General Election. In December 2019, a combined 75% of the electorate voted for either Levelling Up with Boris Johnson, or social democracy with Jeremy Corbyn. No-one voted for Reaganism under Liz Truss, and no-one voted for austerity under Rishi Sunak – nor were they given the chance to. Stripped of both Boris Johnson the man and (more importantly) Johnsonism the ideology, the 2019 Conservative majority simply cannot be morally or logically justified, without at least checking in to see how the public feels.
This is not to say that Sunak couldn’t win on an agenda of fiscal restraint and competent professionalism. Given the exogenous shocks to the system represented by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the public may look far more favourably on a government willing to tighten fiscal policy. Rather, it is just to dispel the absurd notion that one snapshot taken almost three years ago amounts to some kind of public consent. In 2019, then-Chancellor Sajid Javid tore up the Party’s longstanding fiscal rules, and pledged £20bn in additional investment; now, Rishi Sunak warns of “tough decisions” (political-speak for spending cuts) looming on the horizon. Boris Johnson made spreading investment to otherwise-neglected regions the “defining mission” of his 2019 campaign; conversely, the current Chancellor listed the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the City of London financial services industry as Britain’s key assets – without a word about the regions and nations beyond. All this would suggest Nadine Dorries was right: the case for an immediate General Election is hard to refute.
However, Dorries was also wrong. It will be far from “impossible” to avoid; indeed, it almost certainly will not happen. The necessary legislation to call an election will not pass the Commons simply because, for the majority, it would be a case of turkeys voting for Christmas. Recent polling has not just projected certain defeat for the Tories, but electoral wipeout on a scale never seen in British history. Labour’s polling lead – which hit 36% at its peak – could translate into 500 parliamentary seats. Such a majority has not been seen in modern times. Most significantly of all, it would see at least 200 Conservatives lose their jobs. They may lack competence in government, but the current crop of Tories are certainly not stupid. No politician in their right mind would vote themselves out of an £82,000 salary.
We are left, then, at this juncture. Britain finds itself under a regime it didn’t vote for, led by a candidate whose only proper democratic test was one he lost to the robotic and charmless Liz Truss. But, in large part due to our electoral system and the Tories’ instinct for self-preservation, on we shall trundle for another 18 months without a say in what our public officials do on our behalf. Seen from one angle, this could be an appraisal of Britain’s political system, perhaps the only one in the world able to get rid of an unpopular leader with such speed; seen from another, one wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that only Britain could produce politicians so hopelessly talentless as to require such swift removal.
To others around the world, it must be fascinating that the spectre of revolution has not yet arrived at Britain’s shores – other countries have rioted over much less. Perhaps due to the stereotypically even-keeled British temperament, perhaps because we’re all simply exhausted by the turbulence of recent months, there doesn’t seem to be a big enough public effort to secure an early election – certainly not enough to break through the Conservatives’ stubborn refusal. Rishi Sunak is lucky that this is the case. Going forward, he would do well to remember that.