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Sunak drifts towards irrelevance

The PM seems to have no ambitions beyond not being Liz or Boris

Artillery Row

In mid-June, Robert Peston posted a curious tweet:

Rishi Sunak’s closest allies are telling the PM that Boris Johnson is definitively finished after today’s judgement, and that therefore he can govern in his own image with more confidence and without having to look over his shoulder in fear of the ex-PM’s disapproval. “Boris is irrelevant now” said a minister. “Rishi has 18 months to pursue his own agenda. He should use it”.

As any reader can tell, there is little evidence of this confidence and verve emerging. Last week, Tim Shipman painted a picture in the Sunday Times of a despondent Prime Minister, who feels his bargain with the world was not coming as good as he had hoped. Hard work and appearing competent are not the only ingredients required to run a country.

Instead of a Prime Minister unleashed, having ensured the destruction of Boris Johnson, he is a victim of events more than a leader of a government — at Parliament’s mercy, rather than a Prime Minister with a handsome majority won by his predecessor. Indeed, John Rentoul recently wrote in the Independent that the Prime Minister now attracts pity from the public rather than anger or support.

Despite Sunak’s doubts about Net Zero, the government remains glumly committed

Many of his allies stress that he was a long-term Brexiteer, a free marketeer and spending hawk, as well as suspicious of the excesses of Net Zero, so those on the conservative right should stop attacking a PM who is in fact their natural ally. Where is the evidence, though?

Conservatives who either support or oppose Mr Sunak must be equally frustrated. Signs of his timidity came early. In November, he initially decided not to attend COP27 in Egypt, the UN’s climate summit. Understandably, he said that he had more important domestic priorities to tackle. Yet after a day or two of sniping briefings from the green lobby, he caved and decided to go, pleasing nobody.

If there were ever a way for a prime minister to win much-needed support from the right of his party, it would have been by making a break with the most destructive consequences of Net Zero at a time of rampant inflation and constrained energy supply.

Instead we have the worst of both worlds. Those involved with organising COP28 say the UK is entirely disengaged from the process, because of the Prime Minister’s own scepticism of Net Zero. Yet instead of making a virtue of this, stating that COP28 may not work in the interests of the British people, Sunak’s government shows meek acquiescence to the project, no matter the costs. Despite his doubts about Net Zero, the government remains glumly committed to consumer-punishing policies like heat pumps, banning petrol cars and carbon taxes. It is one thing for these to be implemented by a committed believer like Boris Johnson — quite another when it is done by a professed sceptic.

The same is true of the Prime Minister’s decision to rejoin the EU’s Horizon research programme. The affair encapsulates the Conservatives’ habit for disappointing everyone at once. Having previously been barred from Horizon in a fit of French petulance, the British government decided to build an alternative option, called Pioneer. It developed a strategy for research funding that took advantage of the UK’s world-leading status in science — by far the premier European country. As Julian Jessop noted in the Telegraph, this plan was well-received by many scientists and researchers, even those with a natural pro-EU bias.

Sunak’s scepticism of Horizon made this more likely. He was doubtful of its benefits to the British taxpayer, considering how much money was spent on foreign research programmes that ultimately reflected European political priorities. This was an excellent opportunity to break away from a scheme riddled with heavy bureaucracy, restrictive intellectual property rules and a poor track record of commercialisation.

Sadly, it was all for naught. Since the agreement of the Windsor Framework, achieving supposedly cordial relations with the EU has been the order of the day. Divergence and competition are being abandoned for alignment and cooperation. Is this benefiting the British public? The associate membership of Horizon we are entering seems like an even worse deal for British science than the original scheme, with no control over its direction or the way that billions of pounds of British money are spent.

Britain is thanked with more tariffs for giving billions to European research

The United Kingdom seems to be getting little out of its supposedly renewed positive relationship with the European Union. Instead of removing trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Windsor Framework is apparently entrenching them. Consider the postal packets regulations, which will increase burdens on trade between one part of the United Kingdom to another. Previous optimism that Sunak’s reset with the EU would reduce trading frictions has been dealt a further blow, by the announcement of new tariffs on the trade of electric vehicles. To cap it off, some have suggested that the UK’s re-entry into Horizon and the Windsor Framework will rule out the possibility of a referendum on our membership of the European Court of Human Rights.

This leaves us in the curious situation where Britain is thanked for giving European research programmes billions of pounds, with more tariffs and the inability to deport foreign criminals or illegal immigrants. This pleases no one. Tory remainers would accept nothing less than a full return to the EU, whilst the Conservative right has seen its two big ambitions of Brexit — immigration control and economic deregulation — slip away.

If there is one thing that characterises the Sunak government so far, it is drift. Different to the chaos and tragedy of Johnson or Truss, this drift manifests itself in performative competence, a steady hand and little more. It is reminiscent of the paralysis of strong and stable Theresa May, with a government seemingly run by its own enemies. As the Prime Minister must surely realise, competence alone is not enough to lead and reform the British government.

Perhaps he actually has no desire to reform the state anyway. When questioned about the failures of the Tory party to overcome the blob in the administrative state, the Prime Minister said he did not even recognise the blob as a concept. Despite endless evidence of taxpayer-funded charities and activists working with obstructionist officials to subvert an elected government’s policy on everything from immigration and crime, to education and Brexit, the Prime Minister does not see it. Just as a fish cannot see water, so Sunak and many of his ministers cannot see the blob from within.

It is a tragic waste of an election, with its promises made to Conservative voters. The House of Commons timetable remains funereal and empty, with little legislation and many pointless debates seeing MPs through until recess. This is happening despite the House’s receiving a wealth of practical recommendations from reform, be it the Independent Business Network’s deregulatory ideas, ten steps for reform proposed by Lord Frost, or the numerous Brexit opportunities proposed by the Briefings for Britain group — which seems to be doing the government’s job for them.

Time is running out until the next election, and every day the government makes a choice to continue its drift to the end. It is within its grasp to change this and secure a legacy for Conservatism, but perhaps the Prime Minister and the Tory Party do not even want to bother.

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