Prime Ministers must define themselves – that’s to say, tell a story about why they and their party should be elected, especially if they have no electoral mandate of their own. It’s hard for them to do so when they’re already well known for other reasons. Liz Truss wasn’t, and didn’t survive in post for long enough to make a difference.
Theresa May was the longest-serving Home Secretary in over 60 years, and came to the premiership with a reputation. But she was able to re-cast herself, partly because of the exigencies of Brexit, and partly because of the image-making power of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, as a fighter against “burning injustices”. She, too, failed.
Boris Johnson had been around in office for even longer, having served two terms as Mayor of London, the first beginning before the Coalition took office. Most voters wanted to get Brexit done, and with a deal too. He was able to present himself as the man who would deliver both – and did. He won an election, but ultimately failed in office.
Bad luck and judgement played their part. Luck, because his government was haunted by Covid and war. Judgement, because he saw economics as a sort of Roman circus: a spectacle to entertain the masses, featuring tax cuts, borrowed money, public works and, ideally, lots of statues.
So the storm clouds were already gathering before Truss dynamited the flood defences. But even Johnson’s Promethean will couldn’t defy economic reality, and his appetite for spending, plus the costs of Covid, was met by tax rises as well as by more borrowing.
Now the man who shares responsibility for both is in Number Ten. Unlike all three of his recent Conservative predecessors, he comes to office with that economic hurricane raging. The good news for him is that his polls ratings run ahead of his party’s. And that’s about it.
He has entered Downing Street during a fourth Conservative-led term of government. There is no precedent in modern times for a fifth. When Truss became Prime Minister, the Tories lagged Labour in Politico’s poll of polls by 31 per cent to 42 per cent. Then she crashed the car. And by the time he succeeded her, the parties’ respective scores were 24 per cent to 52 per cent.
Sunak has barely dented Labour’s lead. No wonder: there is no credible alternative to tax rises and spending cuts – since the markets are now the real government, at least when it comes to economic policy. And when troubles come, they come not single spies, etc.
Norman Lamont’s verdict on John Major’s Government was that it gave the impression “of being in office but not in power”. So it is for Sunak today. Problems come fast in modern government and he seems to be short of convincing solutions – to small boats, to higher migration, to the endtime-style fanatics of Just Stop Oil, even to the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition closure.
The museum is shutting down its Medicine Man exhibition, which was been open for 15 years, because of its “racist, sexist and ableist theories and language”. The Wellcome Collection says that it “generally” doesn’t receive government grants. So you may say that what it does is none of the Government’s business.
That isn’t how many Conservative members and voters will see the matter. They ask: why, after 12 years of Tory-led goverment, isn’t the country more conservative? Kemi Badenoch’s popularity with activists during the summer’s leadership contest, according to our surveys and YouGov’s polls, was driven by the sense that she was the candidate who most felt their discontent.
Sunak has avoided the self-harm of the Truss and Johnson eras, at least so far. There have been no “alleged gatherings on Government premises”, Covid-style, in the words of Sue Grays’ report. And whatever may be said of Hunt’s Autumn Statement, it didn’t blow the roof off the laboratory, as the Kwasi Kwarteng mini-Budget did.
He may want Red Wall-focused action from Ministers, of which the centrepiece is stopping the small boats. But the core of his Government is provided by Blue Fade-type MPs – such as Oliver Dowden and Jeremy Quin in the Cabinet Office, at the centre of government, and John Glen plus Hunt himself at the Treasury.
The danger for Sunak is that mangerialism is not enough – that a Tory-destructive spiral sets in: that events come thick and fast; that Tory rebels grow bolder; ditto, Nigel Farage; that MP retirements mount, that the media pick off Ministers one by one, Dominic Raab being the present target, and that Conservative poll ratings stay in their present desperate range.
Simon Clarke’s onshore wind amendment to the Levelling Up Bill seems to be a reponse to Theresa Villiers’ housing targets’ one. Whatever your view of both, Conservative rebellion plainly isn’t dead. It’s a good thing for the Commons that MPs may argue these matters out on the floor of the House. But it’s plainly bad for Tory unity.
That Clarke’s amendment is backed by Truss – and Johnson too – hasn’t been lost on Sunak’s supporters, who claim recent scores are being paid. Twelve Conservative MPs have said they are standing down, and more will follow. The most striking announcement of the weekend was Dehenna Davison’s. The Red Wall Minister has been an MP for fewer than three years.
The curse of leader writers is mistaken confidence in their own views. I’m doubtless no less prone to it than any of the others, but my self-assurance runs dry as I stare at this forbidding landscape. Lord Ashcroft writes on ConservativeHome today that “while voters may have seen the advent of Sunak as a return to sanity, they do not regard it as a fresh start”.
Perhaps that’s all that can usefully be said. Maybe the Prime Minister should simply shrug his shoulders, and accept that his political fate is to be a fire-fighter. And that any attempt to frame a different mission or send a bigger message would be shot down by the lobby with that single, feared, obliterating word: relaunch.
It would do Sunak no good to read of an “embattled Prime Minister” seeking to salvage “his beleaguered Government”. Can he tell a story about himself that could cut through to the voters – whose wordclouds of him will already feature the words “nondom”, “green card” and (definitely) “rich”?
He doesn’t seem to be well-placed to cast himself as a champion of the NHS. Nor is this the most rewarding of times for him to push the main theme of his Mais Lecture as Chancellor, about which William Atkinson wrote on this site at the end of last week – better productivity. And, no, a temporary surge driven by higher unemployment would not mean real success.
As William pointed out, Hunt borrowed Sunak’s line from the lecture about wanting to make Britain the new Silicon Valley. Here is an aspiration that runs true to character. But it is too niche, I suspect, to have much voter impact – even when backed up with all that Budget research and development money.
The Prime Minister is a creation of the trinity that delivers less demand for government – a stable family, good education, rewarding work. He is already waist-deep in the work part of the triangle, as the Government wrestles with war, an “NHS crisis” and recession.
Families policy is neglected ground. Might there be more for him in education? His parents clearly prized it. So will he. The May and Johnson governments worked hard in the space where education and work met – apprenticeships, T-levels, the lifelong loan entitlement. Is there more for Sunak and the Conservatives here?