Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
When Bola Tinubu was elected president of Nigeria earlier this year, he faced calls to form a government of national unity. But Tinubu rejected this idea, preferring to form what he called a “government of national competence“.
This is also the approach adopted by Rishi Sunak. Not for him the theatrics of Boris Johnson, nor the zealotry of Liz Truss. Rather, he presents himself as a problem solver, Britain’s Mr Fixit, the man who can.
Of course, competence, unlike charisma, is not its own reward — it is judged on results. So what has Sunak actually delivered?
Well, he’s restored a measure of confidence in UK economic policy, no small thing after the mini-Budget meltdown last year.
We’ve also got through what could have been a second Winter of Discontent. Contrary to the doomsday predictions, the NHS didn’t collapse. Nor, despite the energy crisis, did whole swathes of the population succumb to hypothermia. Strikes did not bring the government to its knees, and the great tomato shortage did not provoke widespread rioting.
That’s not to dismiss the hardship suffered by millions of Britons – but, unlike certain other nations, we haven’t responded by setting cars on fire.
Speaking of the French, Sunak’s also been busy mending fences. His relationship with Emmanuel Macron is literally touching, and the resulting Windsor agreement has put Brexit on a firmer footing while also unblocking our accession to the CPTPP trade agreement.
Back home, the Prime Minister has seen off Nicola Sturgeon, who had been his most powerful opponent. Holding his nerve – and rejecting civil service advice – he blocked her Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
(He has even gone so far as to agree that 100 per cent of women don’t have penises. My younger self would never have imagined that this would be the clear blue water between us and Labour, but there it is.)
The policy wins are coming in thick and fast, but are they making a political difference?
Well, narratives are shifting. For the first time since the start of Partygate, the media is running upbeat pieces on Conservative prospects (for instance, here and here). As for the Labour’s deranged attack ads, Sunak should count them as a backhanded complement.
We also see some improvement in the polls. Our ratings have risen from the hadal zone through the abyssal and all way up to the bathypelagic. But make no mistake, we’re still under water. If we want to avoid a landslide defeat at the next election, let alone win it, then further progress is required.
So can Sunak’s competence strategy keep on delivering? I have a few words of caution.
Firstly, the Prime Minister hasn’t just been competent – he’s also been lucky. Never mind the political weather, the actual weather this winter was mild and windy, deflecting the full force of Vladimir Putin’s attack on Europe’s energy security.
For related reasons, the EU has realised that of its three biggest neighbours (the UK, Russia, and Turkey) it ought to be friends with at least one of them. This obviously helped with the Brexit breakthrough.
Fortune has also favoured the brave with regard to Scotland. The SNP is rotting from within, so a pushback against Sturgeon was bound to produce results.
A run of good luck, then. But can it last?
Thus far, the Government has focused on getting the basics right: not bankrupting the country, keeping us warm, fixing Brexit, and recognising biological reality. That’s great as far is it goes, but a bare pass for a competent government.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for a prime minister who doesn’t occupy his waking hours repeatedly shooting himself in the foot. But I hope he realises that the next set of challenges will be more exacting.
Most obviously, there’s his promise to stop the small boats, on which he cannot afford to fail.
And even if he ticks-off every item on his 2023 to-do list, there’s his long-term reform agenda. To begin with, what is it? This year’s budget, a grab-bag of short-term fixes, offered no clue. The Prime Minister’s in-depth policy speeches are also less than illuminating, mainly because he’s yet to give one.
So far he’s got away without saying anything of substance, but this can’t carry on. Who does he think he is? Sir Keir Starmer?
At some point we need to hear something meaningful from Sunak on Britain’s underlying social and economic problems. Our 15-year productivity crisis, for instance. Or the dying Tory dream of a property-owning democracy. Any thoughts about those, Rishi?
Or what about the impending AI revolution? Our Prime Minister is an intelligent, articulate man. He is neither senile nor mad nor bad.
As an English-speaking G7 leader he has an opportunity to give an era-defining speech on a subject of world-historical importance. His model should be Margaret Thatcher addressing the UN General Assembly on global warming or Ronald Reagan calling upon Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”
In the time left to him as prime minister, Sunak has a chance for his words to echo down the ages. So why wouldn’t he take it?
Of course, no one expects him to rise to every challenge or solve every problem before the next election. But at some point soon he needs to offer more than the basics.
If the vision thing doesn’t grab him, then political calculation should. You see, he won’t just be fighting on his record – he’ll also have the Truss and Johnson’s legacies hanging around his neck.
If you look at recent polling improvements, they can be seen most clearly in Sunak’s personal ratings — he is running well ahead of the party.
But while it might seem sensible to major on his image as a level-headed problem solver, that runs the risk of reminding voters what happened before. If an angry electorate hasn’t had its fill of retribution, then doesn’t matter how many problems Sunak solves.
That’s why he must offer something more than competence, something that moves the story forward.
That said, the past is coming back to haunt him anyway. In particular, the Privileges Committee is due to deliver its verdict on whether Johnson misled Parliament on Partygate.
If it recommends a penalty sufficient to trigger the recall procedure, then it won’t just be the former premier in hot water. Sunak would have to choose between throwing Johnson to the wolves or defying the committee.
The outcome of the Owen Paterson affair is a taste of what will happen if the choice is fumbled.
If it does come to the crunch, then Johnson should resign his seat immediately. This would save the Government’s blushes and provide public opinion with its pound of flesh. It might be best for him too; it wouldn’t be the first time he’s benefitted from a strategic retreat.
In any case, we’re about to find out whether Sunak’s competence is merely administrative or extends to his political judgment too.
The local elections will provide another test of his political acumen. He may be able to blame a bad result on his predecessors, but he still has to reboot his government in time for the last full year before the general election.
His next reshuffle (and there will have to be one) is of critical importance. If his competence-based approach is to succeed, then Sunak must be sure that the bodies on the front bench have more bottom than those on the backbenches. Ultimately, there are no competent prime ministers – only competent governments.