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Rishi Sunak's daunting challenge

Jan 24,2023 - Last updated at Jan 24,2023

LONDON — Fate has not dealt Rishi Sunak, the United Kingdom’s first prime minister of color and its third prime minister in two months, a winning electoral hand.

Sunak entered office following two horrendous displays of prime ministerial incompetence. Boris Johnson, who served as prime minister from 2019 to September last year, combined idleness with mendacity to create “cakeism”, a governing philosophy based on the notion that it is possible to have your cake and eat it. Promise voters whatever they appear to want while paying little regard to whether it is realistic or whether it contradicts other promises.

Johnson was followed by another Conservative Party darling, Liz Truss, who lasted just 44 costly days in office, becoming the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister. With her reckless chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, Truss tried to borrow her way to an economic miracle, announcing massive tax cuts that would have overwhelmingly benefited the rich.

But while many Conservatives and their favourite newspapers cheered her on, bond markets gave Truss’s “mini-budget” an emphatic thumbs down. During the Brexit campaign, right-wingers used to ask, “Who runs Britain?” In November last year, they got an answer: the holders of British government bonds who do not want to be on the hook for billions of pounds’ worth of bad debt.

Following Johnson and Truss’s egregious mismanagement, it has become abundantly clear that the Brexiteers require adult supervision. Enter Sunak, whom Truss had beaten for the top job only weeks before, and his new chancellor, Jeremy Hunt. Sunak headed the Treasury until relatively recently, so it is safe to assume that, unlike Truss and Kwarteng, he is familiar with how budgets work. And Hunt, a moderate, will also likely favour fiscal prudence over irresponsible borrowing.

This is not to say that Sunak is perfect. He has made some disastrous political decisions, including his support for Johnson’s bid for the premiership. He is also a dyed-in-the-wool Brexiteer: Leaving the European Union, he argued, would make the UK “freer, fairer, and more prosperous,” and amounted to a “once-in-a-generation opportunity for our country to take back control of its destiny”.

Moreover, Sunak’s political judgment has often been amiss. He has made some silly errors in his efforts to distract attention from his extreme wealth. But his ability to make intelligent decisions, be decent, and distinguish right from wrong should matter more than his (lack of) populist credentials.

Conservatives would like to think that Sunak could easily knock things into shape and prevent an electoral disaster for the party in the next general election, scheduled to take place no later than January 2025. By then, it will have been more than 14 years since the last Labour Party-led government. But recent polls give Labour, under the leadership of the competent (if not very exciting) Keir Starmer, a huge lead over the Tories.

But to have any hope of avoiding a humiliating electoral defeat, Sunak and Hunt must first climb a mountain of daunting economic challenges. Within four years, the UK’s tax burden is expected to exceed 37 per cent of GDP, a postwar record, despite the Conservative Party’s stated belief in lower taxes. The economy is predicted to shrink by 1.4 per cent next year, and inflation is expected to be 7.4 per cent, eroding real wages and likely provoking a wave of industrial action.

Living standards, moreover, look set to fall by 7 per cent over the next two years, the biggest decline in six decades. On top of that, £30 billion ($35.9 billion) in spending cuts will likely be needed to fill the fiscal hole created by Truss’s catastrophic plan.

All of this adds up to a less-than-compelling election message. Conservatives will likely present the coming economic pain as necessary and attempt to deflect attention from their own culpability.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is the leading cause of rising energy prices, they will say, and the massive hole in the country’s public finances is the result of helping people through the COVID-19 pandemic. But what about Brexit? Experts estimate its economic cost at 4 per cent of GDP, which is why the Tories have been trying to bully us all into not talking about it. The hunt for the opportunities allegedly opened up by Brexit has proved to be a wild goose chase.

Meanwhile, efforts to restore some sense to British public policy have been hampered by right-wing ideologues who plot under the banner of the European Reform Group. Despite its name, the group is not interested in reform, or in Europe. Its goal is to block any effort to enhance the UK’s relations with the EU countries that make up its largest economic market, or to improve the dreadful Brexit deal negotiated by Johnson.

Even though it undermines both national and party interests, some of these right-wingers oppose the government’s plans to stimulate house building by reforming the planning laws, a move opposed by voters in many of their wealthy constituencies. As the French statesman Talleyrand famously said of the Bourbons, these zealots have “learned nothing and forgot nothing”.

Alas, Sunak’s ability to resist far-right Conservatives is limited by his apparent belief that he must pander to them. To retain their political support, he has had to make several awful ministerial appointments, including that of Suella Braverman as home secretary. But, as always, the more the right gets, the more it wants.

The Conservative leadership must stand up to the party’s extremists, and it must do so sooner rather than later. If moderates cannot defeat the hardliners by the next election, and the outcome turns out to be as bad for the Tories as recent polls suggest, they will find they have the same fight on their hands in opposition.

Conservatives must never underestimate the importance of their moderate supporters. If the Party continues to disregard centrists whenever the Brexiteer right stamps its feet, it may find itself out of power for a long time to come.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford and the author of “The Hong Kong Diaries” (Allen Lane, 2022). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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