Artillery Row Portcullis Sketch

New Year’s Rishilutions

Can he turn things around? Probably not

Rishi Sunak has made two big decisions in his political career that were all his own, at moments when an alternative course was possible. The first, in 2016, was to support Brexit. The second, in 2019, was to back Boris Johnson. 

Whatever the other merits of these choices, both had distinct career advantages for Sunak, putting him on course for Number 10. The early endorsement of Johnson led to his appointment as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, which, though he couldn’t have foreseen it, made him the natural successor when Sajid Javid resigned as chancellor the following year. 

And if his endorsement of Brexit didn’t do him as much good as he expected in last year’s leadership contest – by 2022, candidates needed to be a lot crazier than that to get the vote of party members – he might not have been in the race at all without it.

Now that he has the top job, though, he is stuck with the legacy of these choices. Brexit is an increasingly unpopular policy. Whatever advantages it may bring when we reach the long-promised sunlit uplands, in 2023 it’s making life difficult for businesses and causing diplomatic and parliamentary headaches that Sunak doesn’t need. 

As for Boris, it’s fair to say that he didn’t turn out to be the unalloyed success as prime minister that Sunak suggested he would be. His character flaws, which even today Sunak is reluctant to acknowledge, meant he left the government’s reputation in tatters. The chaos of his administration, which in 2019 could have been foreseen by anyone who took a passing interest in politics, meant the government ignored problems over the National Health Service and the cost of living until they became the crises they are now.

The political battle of 2023, and the next election, will be about assigning blame for the country’s troubles. Sunak will trot out alibis from Ukraine to the 2008 financial crisis, all the while pretending that this is the Year Zero for a new government that has nothing to do with the previous Conservative administrations that may, to some people, seem partly responsible for our messes. You could see this manoeuvre in his New Year speech, when the prime minister distanced himself from “politicians who promise the earth and then fail to deliver”. That was a line best read as a slight at his pledge-happy predecessor, but it’s less than four years since Sunak urged his fellow MPs to support Johnson. 

The challenge for Labour is to ensure that Sunak is tied to his party and its record in power. Keir Starmer, in his own New Year speech the following day, made a start. “Nobody criticises the government for the effects of the war in Ukraine,” he said, discussing the energy crisis. “But the war didn’t scrap home insulation. The war didn’t ban onshore wind. The war didn’t stall British nuclear energy.”

Not even Starmer’s best friends would suggest he has megawatt charisma, but then neither does Sunak. The next election will be fought between two technocrats. There will be none of the reality distortion field that meant Johnson’s claims escaped the sort of scrutiny they really deserved.

This ought to favour Starmer

This ought to favour Starmer. We’re regularly briefed that Sunak is diving into the details of problems, but many of the solutions involve first building a time machine and going back a decade. The answers he offers instead reveal how bad things are: how will the government require unions to deliver minimum levels of public services when the public can’t summon an ambulance or a police officer even on non-strike days?

There’s a long way to go to the election, and it’s well within the capability of both parties to self-harm. There are plenty within Labour who would cheerfully denounce Starmer for betraying some cause or other, launching the party into the kind of internal war that baffles and alienates the public. But again the danger is greater for Sunak. 

Ambitious Tory MPs will, as he once did, be thinking about their own futures, rather than what would be most helpful to a prime minister who may well be living in California in three years time. Cabinet ministers who anticipate a post-election leadership contest will be looking to signal that they are the true standard bearers for their factions. Expect lots of wide-ranging speeches in the coming months, and stories about how individual ministers didn’t support policies unpopular in the party. 

Those briefings will, inevitably, be strongest around Brexit, accusing Sunak of betraying the One True Faith by kow-towing to Brussels. Finally, of course, there will always be Boris, hanging around in the background, finding ways to make things difficult for the man he believes stabbed him in the back. 

Sunak spent his early time in Parliament sowing. He’ll spend the final years reaping.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover