If Rishi Sunak’s fledging government has so far developed a theme, it would probably be “a return to normalcy”. The Truss-Kwarteng experiment is over; the adults are back at the helm.
Inasmuch as this has staved of market chaos, it’s all to the good – although of course it also brings in train all the problems of the grown-up order, such as a myopic approach to infrastructure and addiction to strangling the housing market.
The Prime Minister’s decision to attend COP27 is another example, albeit in this case we’re told that what actually happened was that Truss’s plans not to attend were simply rolled over during the rather abrupt transition, and not updated before press enquiries began.
In the broader realm of foreign policy, it’s a bit of a mixed picture. On the one hand James Cleverly, a Truss holdover, is pressing ahead with unfortunate plans to negotiate the surrender of the bulk of the British Indian Ocean Territory, reversing decades of cross-party consensus on British policy.
On the other, we read today that the Government has scrapped proposals to move the British embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which were being explored during Truss’s premiership.
When I wrote about this last month, the main point was that the Prime Minister hadn’t really spelled out the benefits to the UK of making such a big symbolic gesture. The Times reports that “Truss had ambitions for a bespoke trade deal with Israel”, and perhaps it would have helped with that, but the explicit case was not being made.
Likewise, her critics didn’t really seem to be describing much by way of serious costs, save for some pearl-clutching about the impact on the ossified debate about a future Palestinian state. With Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly back at the head of yet another right-wing coalition, the prospect of that seems fairly remote at present.
Whilst the stakes on this particular move are quite low, it fits in to a broader picture of Sunak backing away from anything that looks like imaginative reform. One by one, policy pledges he made only this summer are being abandoned. Having pledged to explore fundamental reform of the Home Office, for example, his allies now brief that the time for changes to the machinery of government is over.
Such caution is likely sensible in the majority of cases, given the situation he inherited. But there are a couple of dangers to it.
In the short term, there is only so far that ‘not being Truss’ will get him, and he faces a difficult task to try and secure an historic fifth Tory term in the face of a second round of bitter austerity medicine. Taking a longer view, there were and remain deep structural problems facing both the Conservatives and the United Kingdom which a policy of ‘steady as she goes’ will not address.
Whatever your view of her ideas – let alone the political ineptitude with which they were put into practice – Truss at least gave the sense that she had a positive idea of what she wanted to do with power. There was an ambition to it lacking in the current programme of retrenchment at home and retreat overseas, even if that ambition were not in the end matched by ability.
In so swiftly ejecting the previous government from office (save those elements the Prime Minister has retained), the Party and the country rejected this vision of the future. But Sunak has to do better than returning to this one.