Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
The other day I saw a poll that put Conservative support at 30 per cent. My heart did a little skip: maybe, just maybe, we can look forward to mere humiliation at the next election — as opposed to total destruction.
But is that all there is to hope for? I realise that Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have been busy un-crashing the economy. But if this is the best the party can do, then it’s time to ask questions.
Just to be clear, those questions do not include “should we change leaders again?”, because the answer to that one is “obviously not, you raving lunatic”. However, here’s one we do need to ask: “What’s wrong with Sunak?”. Because something’s not working.
I feel bad for raising it; the Prime Minister is intelligent, conscientious and, by Westminster standards, likeable. He’s been placed in an impossible position, but hasn’t shirked from the challenge. In choosing him, the party could have done a lot worse – as indeed it previously did.
What, then, is his problem? I was struggling to put my finger on it, but then it came to me: the problem with Sunak is that he’s basic. He’s a basic prime minister leading a basic government.
In this context, I’m using basic in its contemporary, pejorative sense. This bit of slang is better known to the young than the rest of us, so if you’re not down with the kids, let me explain: if someone is basic, it means that their cultural choices are trendy, but mind-numbingly unoriginal.
It’s not a case of making no effort, but of putting all one’s effort into fitting in, not standing out. In many ways, being basic is worse than being a nerd. The latter, at least, requires the courage to reject the tides of fashion, while the former obediently goes with the flow.
Obviously, there’s an element of snobbery at work here — the snooty disdain of the avant-garde for the mainstream. But on the other hand, being basic is the rejection of curiosity and the death of creativity. It deserves the flak.
All of which brings me back to Sunak’s style of leadership, which does for British politics what being basic does for youth culture.
Consider his big speech this month in which he set out his five “key priorities” for 2023. These are to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce the national debt, cut NHS waiting lists, and stop the small boats.
There’s nothing wrong with having priorities, of course. But four out of five of these are simply anticipating what’s almost certain to happen anyway.
For instance, inflation is a year-on-year measure, so if an inflationary shock isn’t repeated then, 12 months on, the problem drops out of the statistics (even if the country is still struggling to make ends meet). Similarly, as the exceptional impacts of Covid-19 begin to fade away we’d naturally expect a positive effect on GDP, borrowing requirements, and waiting lists.
To repackage the inevitable as a defining mission is pretty poor stuff.
The only promise that isn’t statistically pre-programmed is the one about small boats. However, on closer inspection, the pledge isn’t to stop illegal immigration, but to pass new laws with the intention of tackling the problem, which isn’t the same thing at all.
Missing from the speech – or any of Sunak’s speeches as Prime Minister – is an interest in this country’s underlying weaknesses. There’s no in-depth analysis, let alone a meaningful agenda for reform. What’s makes this so dispiriting is that he’s capable of saying so much more.
When I write about Sunak, I often mention his 2022 Mais Lecture, which he gave when he was still Chancellor. That’s because it is a genuinely serious argument. At one point, when considering the failure of the Osborne experiment with cutting corporation tax, he comes close to saying the quiet bit out loud: that the UK’s economic model is fundamentally broken.
A year on – and now in the top job – one might have expected him to have further thoughts on this urgent matter. But instead he pads out his speeches with filler. For instance, in observing that change requires “sacrifice” and “hard work”, he adds that “it’s a big risk for a politician to say that.”
Except that it’s not; it’s standard rhetorical fluff. What would be a big statement is if he told us the truth, which is that without deep structural change, this country is finished. We must reinvent the state, reform capitalism, and restore civil society. Furthermore, this must take place on a scale that shakes Whitehall to its very foundations.
But Sunak is slowing down the pace of reform, not speeding it up. I’m not talking about the Truss madness here, but the things that a Conservative government ought be doing.
Take the housing crisis, for example, where extending home ownership should be our primary concern. Instead, policy is now dictated from the backbenches – where the nimby interest always comes first.
Then there’s the levelling-up agenda. Last week, while getting fined for not wearing a seatbelt, the Prime Minister metaphorically threw cash out of a moving car.
He was promoting the wretched Levelling Up Fund — in which Whitehall plays the role of Lady Bountiful, granting or refusing funding bids from local communities.
Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of West Midlands, has had enough, condemning the system as “broken”. In place of this “begging bowl culture”, he argues for genuine fiscal devolution in which communities are empowered to fund their own development.
But despite the success of earlier Conservative reforms like the City Deals and the introduction of directly elected Metro Mayors, the momentum has been lost, and Whitehall’s power reasserted.
What possible excuse could there be for this dispiriting style of government? Well, I can think of three, which I’ll rank from most to least convincing.
The best excuse is that Sunak is choosing his moment. There’s no point in him unveiling the good stuff just yet. With this winter of discontent not yet over and the local elections still to come, it’s better to ride out the storm — and then reshuffle the Cabinet and reboot the Government’s agenda.
If that is the plan, it would make a lot of sense. Let’s hope that somebody, somewhere in Downing Street is working on policies worth voting for.
A middling excuse is that there’s not enough time for the Government to do anything big and bold. This is half true: the Johnson Government was blown off-course by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and then it blew itself up in 2022.
However, Sunak still has 2023 and most of 2024 before the likeliest date of the next general election. That’s enough time to make a difference – as long as none of it is wasted.
Finally, the worst excuse: that because Liz Truss gambled and lost, the current Prime Minister should take no risks at all.
The trouble with that logic is that he’s already losing. Assuming a path to victory even exists from such a poor starting position, it is by definition an improbable one. The basic style of government therefore makes zero sense.
And yet there’s a perverse tendency for doomed governments to play it safe. At the 1929 general election, the Conservative slogan was “safety first”, while in 1997 it was “you can only be sure with the Conservatives”. In the event, Stanley Baldwin lost 152 seats and John Major 178.
Baldwin and Major were mild-mannered, cautious prime ministers with tendencies toward the basic. Their example should should serve as a dire warning to their modern-day successor.