We have at least one reason to be thankful that this lightning leadership selection took place so soon after a full contest: it means we have at least a vague idea of what Rishi Sunak might actually try to do as prime minister.
Thanks to this very handy spreadsheet compiled by Public First, we have a fairly comprehensive guide to the pledges he made during the campaign.
Of course, economic circumstances have changed quite dramatically since then, and we don’t yet know which of the proposals outlined will end up discarded at the wayside. Austerity and the cost of living are likely to dominate the next few years.
Nonetheless, it’s an interesting glimpse into what ‘Sunakism’ might look like, in a world where he had the time and money to implement it. Here are a few features which caught our eye:
1) Refugee Caps
Per his campaign website, Sunak is (or at least was, a few weeks ago) committed to “creating a cap set annually by Parliament on the number of refugees we accept each year via safe and legal routes, amendable in the face of emergencies.”
What to make of this? Is it simply about trying to drive numbers down where the Government can to offset the continual failure to bring illegal crossings under control? Given that the focal point of the problem is small boats, it isn’t immediately obvious what itch this policy would scratch. (It has at least not been accused at length of being “legally illiterate”, unlike his plan to tighten the definition of refugee.)
In the Daily Telegraph, Sunak wrote that “Numbers should be determined by need.” That is a good principle; the points-based system is built around it. But it tends to be the foundation for assessing economic migration, rather than refugees. How many refugees, specifically, does the UK ever need?
2) EU Law Overhaul
“Today, I make a promise. If I am elected prime minister, by the time of the next General Election, I will have scrapped or reformed all of the EU law, red tape and bureaucracy that is still on our statute book and slowing economic growth.”
This is a good idea, in principle. In practice, however, it is almost certainly a recipe for the wholesale retention of vast chunks of EU law. Two years – and it cannot be much longer than that until the next election – is simply not time enough to do a thorough assessment of that much legislation and that many regulations.
What might a more realistic approach look like? Well, perhaps the Prime Minister might have a word with Grant Shapps, who back in 2016 proposed a mechanism by which all retained EU law would lapse unless Parliament pro-actively voted to keep it within five years. We suggested even that timetable might be tight, but the idea – putting inertia on the side of repeal – was sound.
(It could even be applied more widely. Why not attach sunset clauses to new domestic regulations, to make it easier to let them lapse if they don’t work?)
3) Planning Reform
It’s fair to say that neither candidate covered themselves in glory on this subject during the last leadership contest. Liz Truss branding housing targets ‘Stalinist’ was a low point, as was Iain Duncan Smith using his introductory speech at the London hustings – a city in the grip of a mounting rent crisis – to urge local activists to join his crusade against new housing.
But even with the bar set so low, this is one area where what we know of Sunak’s policy is just as bad. The most obviously malignant is his proposal to strip local councils of the power to re-designate greenbelt land for development, a puzzling decision to apply the might of central government to make the problem worse.
The rest we covered in more detail during the campaign: it is basically based on the myth of ‘land banking’, and risks making it even riskier and more expensive for developers to try and take forward projects on all but the safest plots.
For a candidate who’d fallen behind and needed to pander to the worst instincts of some activists, such a woeful melange of policies was at least understandable. It is not good enough for a prime minister presiding over a deepening housing crisis.
4) Energy Self-Sufficiency
This is an interesting one: in the previous race, Sunak proposed to introduce a legally-binding target to make the UK energy self-sufficient by 2045.
Now this is not usually a good way to govern, for Conservatives; it is generally an invitation to well-financed activist groups to drag the judiciary into more areas of political life. But it would at the very least be very interesting to see how this target worked out in practice.
As that Sunak is also committed to Net Zero, that means this would more often that not require clean energy projects; the article above-linked focuses on offshore wind. Nuclear power would also be an obvious focus, although that would require building on land and thus irritating some NIMBYs.
If the Government managed to bring enough infrastructure projects on-stream to stay ahead of Britain’s energy needs, the target could simply serve as a much-needed (or if you’re Truss, ‘Stalinist’) spur to cut through the red tape and get things built. If it doesn’t, it conjures the amusing spectre of the courts imposing onshore wind and solar farms on sputtering MPs to get the nation over the line.
Either way, seems like a good idea.
5) Post-16 Education
Back in July, the Guardian reported that Sunak wanted to curb university degrees which don’t enhance a graduate’s earning power:
“The former chancellor would assess university degrees through their drop-out rates, numbers in graduate jobs and salary thresholds, with exceptions for nursing and other courses with high social value.”
On the face of it, this isn’t a bad idea. Conservatives often complain about Tony Blair’s bid to hugely expand university attendance, but seldom couple that with a clear counter-idea of what publicly-subsidised degrees are actually for.
One can object to Sunak’s criteria, but it is at least a proposal which might go some way to curb the process by which young people get funnelled into second-rate courses (taking on a pile of debt in the process) which don’t actually enhance their life chances much.
Where such a shift might run into difficulty is the fact that university spending is in part just a way of distributing and disguising regional subsidies. Decisive action on graduate oversupply might be welcome in a big-picture sense, but lots of towns with a big local uni would feel a share of the pain from a crackdown on low-value courses.
That isn’t a reason not to do it. But given his promises to Ben Houchen and the Northern Research Group, and the broader imperative to be seen to be delivering for the Red Wall and other areas that backed the Conservatives for the first time at the last election, Sunak would need to make sure that those communities got the money back in a more useful form.