Being the third Tory prime minister of Britain in less than two months should be a matter of distress. Not a distinction for the Conservative party and Rishi Sunak, the newbie in 10 Downing Street. Expectations from the former chancellor of the exchequer are running high. Such high expectations bring in huge responsibilities. Britons want Sunak to restore Britain’s self-respect, rein in inflation, lift their living standards and carry them comfortably through the cost of living crisis, among others. The Tory party wants him to stop the spasms of crisis traumatising it so often.
Is this too much to ask for? Perhaps yes. Being the fifth prime minister in six years does not inspire much confidence. The burden of expectations on Sunak is too heavy to enable him make a smooth progress. As someone who was Boris Johnson’s accomplice to the lockdown-violating parties, Sunak will be closely watched, his every move monitored. Being the one to exit Johnson’s cabinet later, triggering his ultimate downfall, makes him an unreliable politician. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-62068930
Enthusiasm Defies Logic
Pro-Sunak political observers beg to differ. They argue Sunak did appreciate the need for forging unity in his Conservative Party and did agree Britain’s economic challenges are quite daunting. Mere acknowledgements are not enough, Sunak must demonstrate his willingness and ability to hit the ground running. If he can help his party avoid disgrace in the next general election, he would have done his job. Bad luck for Sunak, winning the next election looks formidable now with his Conservative Party lying tangled in unending internal conflicts.
More so, as the Conservatives are behind Labour by over 35 percentage points in the polls – 36 points in the Redfield & Wilton polls, 37 points in the YouGov polls and 39 points in the People Polling polls. Worse, Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, is consistently rated to be a better prime minister than Sunak by 29 to 38 per cent in 127 to 389 constituencies. Defying logic, Sunak is gung ho, inspired by the adulations he is receiving in a few sections of popular media. https://labourlist.org/2022/10/new-poll-gives-labour-36-point-leadover-tories-after-weeks-of-turmoil-for-truss/
Qualifications Not Enough
Largely, these adulations are inspired by the fact Sunak is an acknowledged deficit warrior. He was quite vociferous against the unfunded tax-cut proposals of Liz Truss. Expectedly, a triumphant-sounding Sunak declared mistakes were done by her. Thus, Sunak is nothing more than a feel-good factor for Britons today. If he arrests the sell-offs in sterling and government debt totally and keep these securities buoyant, it proves he is bang on. Plus, if he makes the right decision by retaining Jeremy Hunt as his chancellor of the exchequer, it confirms the initial hopes of the market.
The market is sure Sunak is bright and has many superlatives to his credit. He is the first prime minister of colour, the youngest (Sunak is 42) and the wealthiest (an estimated 730 million pounds or 830 million USD). These qualifications are not enough for the long haul. Sunak’s greatest weakness lies in his double standards which unravel in personal matters. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/oct/22/rishisunak-rich-730m-fortune-prime-minister
Accused of Taxation Hypocrisy
Consider one such issue. Sunak is married to Akshata Murty and his father-in-law Narayana Murthy is the founder of the Indian tech major Infosys. In early 2022, Sunak’s wife was discovered to have had non-domiciled status for tax purposes, which means she did not have to pay tax on income earned abroad, while living in the United Kingdom. This status allowed her to avoid paying an estimated tax of 20 million GBP. Sunak was accused of ‘taxation hypocrisy’, wherein he was levying taxes on Britons while his family went about whittling its tax liabilities. Can a prime minister, considered to be twice as rich as King Charles III, lead his nation through one of its worst cost-of-living crisis? https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/sunak-murty-wifenon-dom-tax-b2053236.html
The pro-Brexit Sunak is trying to hop over these hurdles by swinging to the right. He has been making rightist noises over restricting refugee inflows into Britain, with his home secretary Suella Braverman joining him in chorus. Sunak’s rightist orientation is sure to frustrate attempts to consolidate his gains as Britain’s leader. The ultimate test for Sunak now is this: how well he manages to fix Britain’s messy economy. As he gets down to undo the economic mess, Sunak will have to take many electorally-defeating decisions. This will be again a landmine.
Ambivalence and Double Standards
Sunak’s double-speak is a landmine in itself. Sunak believed Britain will be ‘more prosperous’ outside the European Union. Thus, he voted for Brexit. He has been proved wrong, yet he likes the Brexit idea. Similarly, Sunak was okay with a no-deal Brexit as long as Britain left the European Union. Yet, he continues to support constructive ties with the Union. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/25/world/europe/rishisunak-brexit.html
Such ambivalence is throwing up many uncomfortable questions. Why did he vote for Brexit in the first place? Why did he back Johnson as a solution to the Brexit mess and create a bigger problem in the process? Why did he yet withdraw support to Johnson and resign from his cabinet? Why did he trigger a political chaos ending in Johnson’s exit?
Continuing His Rightist Tradition
Nevertheless, Sunak appears to have luck on his side. He is inheriting now a Britain whose ills can be effortlessly blamed on Truss and her “famed” mismanagement. Judging by the past, Sunak is likely to turn parochial by placing his party’s interests above Britain’s. Elected to the parliament in 2015, Sunak is too green to realise Brexit and Johnson, his two favourites, have harmed Britain immensely.
Continuing his tradition, Sunak has re-appointed Suella Braverman as his home secretary. She was asked to go a mere nine days ago for breach of security rules. Yet, Braverman has been called in. Her appointment is irksome as she represents the party’s right. The hardline Braverman favours curtailing immigration and deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda. Sunak’s to-ing and fro-ing are evident again in his refusal to jettison value-added tax on energy bills of Britons and later promising the same when he was with Truss. Such vacillation makes him unreliable for Britons. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2022/10/26/no-thingbad-publicity-suella-braverman-new-queen-right/
Despite these shortcomings, Sunak has cheered the markets in an initial flush of ecstasy. Sooner or later, Britons will realise Sunak’s many flaws and failings outbalance the goodness in him. Add to this his deeply fractious Conservative Party. How can the party trust Sunak for long? How can the Tories trust a man who was behind the downfall of two of their prime ministers?
Cheers from the market notwithstanding, the future is filled with gloom for Sunak and his party. Public anger is set to boil over rising prices and interest rates, deteriorating standards of living, worsening cost-of-living crisis, soaring energy bills and fermenting industrial unrest. How can these issues help the Tories get re-elected in the next election? How can Tory infighting aid Sunak’s prime ministerial permanence? Sunak’s own pet Brexit theme and its invisible long-term costs are his career foes. Politics in Britain is largely about hedging the revolving-door risks of being in 10 Downing Street. As a former hedge-fund manager, Sunak knows this well.