25 October 2023

Best Rishes – a year in, Sunak is still the only hope the Tories have got


Every Conservative leader since David Cameron has come to office promising ‘change’. In practice, this has often meant repudiating the record of their predecessor. 

Theresa May responded to frustration with austerity with a pledge to stand up for the ‘just about managing’. Boris Johnson promised to ‘get Brexit done’ after she had singularly failed to deliver it. Liz Truss looked askance at taxes that had become too high after 12 years of Tory rule. And most recently, Rishi Sunak offered ‘stability and unity’ following her uniquely incompetent attempt to change that trend. 

The Prime Minister entered Number 10 exactly a year ago today. Since then, he has contended with a succession of political, economic, and diplomatic challenges and crises: strikes, Johnson’s spectre, Israel, inflation, small boats, ministerial scandals, backbench chirping and Ukraine. Together they go some way in explaining why our youngest PM in 200 years seems to be going prematurely grey. 

In the short-term, Sunak’s arrival in Downing Street has delivered the stability he promised. The markets calmed and politics feels far less hectic. Most Conservative MPs accept a third leadership election (and fourth PM) in two years would be lunacy. Barring an accident, Sunak will lead the Tories into the next election in a year or so’s time – even if it is one his party is approaching with very little enthusiasm.

Thursday’s two by-election defeats merely confirmed what the polls have been saying for months: on their current course, the Conservatives are heading for a shellacking, and Labour a landslide majority. That some Tory MPs weren’t fully aware of this only shows their almost comforting capacity for self-delusion. The scramble for half-decent lobbying jobs or GBNews sinecures progresses in earnest. 

Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. If the Conservatives do go down to a historic defeat next year, the blame for it will be squarely pinned on Sunak. But is this fair? He came into bat more than halfway through the Parliament, following two disastrous predecessors whose premierships were first overshadowed by Covid-19 and the Ukraine war, and then imploded in scandal and acrimony.  

The legacy of Johnson and Truss has continued to dog Sunak. Whether carping from the sidelines about tax cuts or triggering by-elections over misplaced peerages, the manner of their departures has left a substantial part of the Conservative family ill-disposed to its leader – and Sunak was not strong enough to appoint his own Chancellor or Foreign Secretary, or stare down backbenchers over housing targets.

Nonetheless, the Prime Minister has made progress in restoring Britain’s reputation after the embarrassments of his predecessors. He has scaled back our foreign policy ambitions from the fantasy of ‘Global Britain’, whilst ensuring support for Ukraine and Israel. The Windsor Framework upset the Hiro Onodas of the ERG, but showed our allies that Sunak was a man they could do business with. 

Wrongly maligned by economically illiterate talking heads as a supposed socialist for raising taxes, Sunak’s philosophy has been best described by Fraser Nelson as ‘trade-offism’. He was uncomfortable with Johnson’s approach of treating economics with disdain. Whether on Covid, social care, Net Zero, or HS2, Sunak wanted to know exactly how things would be paid for, and to be honest about it. 

Hence his new attempt to present himself as a man willing to take difficult long-term decisions in the national interest. Number 10 are apparently unhappy that his attempted Party Conference rebrand failed to cut through to voters. But that’s hardly surprising. Voters have far better things to do that track the vicissitudes of CCHQ messaging. Many are still unwilling to give the Tories the time of day. 

By no means does that suggest Sunak should abandon his approach or embark on yet another relaunch. Having bit the bullet over the Northern Ireland Protocol, China, Net Zero, and now HS2, he has a growing litany of examples he can point to of his philosophy working in practice. Quietly, he has done a lot in the last twelve months to both restore Britain’s reputation and save taxpayers’ money. 

But how many more opportunities will Sunak have to demonstrate it ahead of the next election? As Henry Hill has highlighted, there is every sign that he will duck controversial legislation on nutrient neutrality, conversion therapy, and rent reform. A Prime Minister who failed to mention housing once in his conference speech is unlikely to satisfy, in a year, the baying demands of frustrated Yimbys.

Yet with rumours circulating of trimming to the Triple Lock in the upcoming Autumn statement, Sunak is showing at least some semblance of willingness to challenge the stultifying consensus he attacked in his conference speech. Despite claims to the contrary, he understands why the state is so big and taxes so high, and is serious about changing that. Sunak was talking about growth before it was cool. 

Those with an understanding of Number 10’s thinking will often tell you a full Sunak term would be used to tackle one of those long-standing issues successive governments have swerved: housing, social care, the NHS. Johnson’s government made early noises about being willing to make vital but unpopular choices, as did Truss’. But Sunak has the record to suggest he could match that rhetoric with action. 

But an unsurprising consequence of aiming to win three successive elections by dumping on your own party’s record is that very few voices are left to defend what the Conservatives have done in office. For 13 years, Tory MPs have squabbled as economic growth has stagnated, immigration has risen, and the Blob has metastasised. Education reform and Brexit make a poor case for the defence. 

Evelyn Waugh once complained that the problem with the Conservative Party is that it has ‘never put the clock back by a single second’. It is hard to disagree the Equalities Act remains on the Statute Book as millions of homes remain unbuilt. Brexit was stillborn, Holyrood and the Senedd remain in existence, and the small boats continue to cross the channel. What has it all been for? 

Dispiriting stuff. But more than any of his four predecessors, Sunak shows both the understanding and the capacity to try and reverse this situation. To say he is the best possible leader the Tories have is hardly the most glowing of compliments. But it’s true. A Prime Minister who was lamenting our potential Euro membership whilst still a schoolboy at Winchester has his instincts in the right place.

Last week I suggested Sunak could learn from Sir Alec Douglas-Home: not only for his batting, but for his well-mannered capacity to chase down a 20-point Labour lead in a year. But for all his virtues, Douglas-Home was in the business of managing decline. It is Sunak’s task, his mission, his telos, to rail against it. Swap the Jilly Cooper for some Dylan Thomas and crack on. The battle isn’t lost yet.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.