Aequitas Global director Simon Benson on the election of Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak’s arrival at Number Ten comes with a number of interesting fast facts. He’s the youngest prime minister in two hundred years, the first Hindu and first person of colour to ever occupy the role. Perhaps most politically significant, he’s the first to squarely blame a former PM from their own party for the significant economic and political mistakes that he has inherited.
Liz Truss, having been driven out by her own backbenchers last week, was shoved firmly back under the bus by Sunak who directly levelled the blame for much of the UK’s economic disasters squarely at her feet in a highly personal criticism of her short premiership.
Ordinarily, this would be sensational political dynamite for the opposition Labour Party – but as we know, these are no ordinary times – as well as the revolving door of Prime Ministers, we’ve recently witnessed an unprecedented five major policy u-turns, four Chancellor of the Exchequers, three Home Secretaries and two mini-Budgets. As we head toward winter, the only thing this government is missing is a partridge in a pear tree, only with their luck, Larry the Downing Street cat would probably eat it live on TV.
Sunak’s admittance that his key problems were caused by his predecessor was made in the full knowledge it would be temporarily buried in the ongoing reshuffle. What Sunak was trying to do was build in a long-term tactic of blame. Should he be unable to turn the situation around before the next election, he will be able to say the mistakes Truss made were so severe that not even he could turn it fully around.
It’s a wise move – the recklessness of the Truss government has caused turmoil in the markets and plunged the UK economy into an ever-increasingly perilous position, faced with recession and rampant inflation. So what did Truss get so wrong and what can Sunak do about it? And where does this leave the UK’s global reputation and the fate of the Labour Party?
There are probably not enough pixels on your screen to articulate what went wrong with Truss. Politically, it came partly down to one of our favourite themes as strategic communications experts: audiences. Specifically, Truss mistook her audience in the parliamentary party (the MPs who voted for her) and her audience among supportive Conservative Party members as the whole picture.
In short, they were not. The wider picture included the rest of the UK electorate, shocked and confused by a plethora of political and economic problems caused by the mountain peaks of austerity, Brexit, the pandemic, the shambolic duration and end to Theresa May and Boris Johnson’s governments along with the recent outbreak of war in Ukraine. Her audience also included important stakeholders, from the allies she undermined (including but not limited to the USA and France, two of the most significant allies in the book) and those that surround and influence the government, such as the Bank of England, the London Stock Exchange and businesses – not to mention many of her own colleagues.
The result was instant political death. Her budget, announced by her close friend the former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, would have been daring at the best of times, namely an overwhelming general election victory where it had been front and centre of a manifesto. She undertook no election, being in office thanks to the 2019 manifesto presented by Boris Johnson. So not only did she fail to consult stakeholders and she also failed to win a mandate for the drastic action she took. Polling showed the public opposed it, the markets reacted against it and there was nobody left to help pick up the pieces as so many colleagues were kept out of the process. There was collective disassociation throughout government, the markets and beyond.
Sunak’s approach will be a total contrast. Already one Tory MP, Huw Merriman has said the incoming government will be deliberately “boring” telling the BBC “we don’t want any excitement, we don’t want any more turbulence… he will run No. 10 like a CEO would run his office”. I share this analysis, although I think he might be pushing his luck to think there won’t be any more drama. This new soap opera has plenty more cliffhangers up its sleeve, in particular the upcoming inquiry into Partygate which is likely to dramatically reopen old wounds. There’s also the small matter of turning around the UK economy, the domestic opinion polls (which at present seem to give Labour more seats than there are at Wembley Stadium) and of course, the UK’s tarnished reputation as a steady pair of hands abroad.
He will bring in the safest (and yes, sometimes dullest) colleagues into his government and go on an immediate stakeholder outreach programme with everyone Truss undermined. His reshuffle commenced yesterday with two of the senior team (the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary) staying in post to provide stability, but a return for Suella Braverman at the Home Office, who had resigned last week.
I predict he will visit Scotland where there is a renewed call for independence, and the northern “red wall” constituencies won by Johnson in 2019, as soon as he has stabilised the situation in London. If he doesn’t go to these areas now during what brief honeymoon he has, then I don’t think he will get many more chances, frankly.
Overseas, he will be instructing the UK’s High Commissioners and Ambassadors to say “we’re back in business” and no doubt instructing his Foreign Secretary to compile a list of all diplomatic figures that he needs to personally call as a priority. I also anticipate a visit to Ukraine – ignored by Truss – as soon as the domestic optics will allow it.
For Labour, Sunak is the least preferred option. Rather like how they enjoyed seeing the Johnson administration limp on like a wounded animal, they would have much preferred to see Truss hang on by her nails, or the return of Johnson, which would have been another set of catastrophes in the making. Sunak will bring a level of professionalism not seen for many years, albeit from a very low bar, and will provide some critical reassurance to the markets – for now. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has impressed in recent months and recently criticised the Conservatives for presiding over “grotesque chaos”.
Being ancient, I remember the ‘90s – and just as today’s fashion seems to be bringing that decade back to life, so are the parallels with its politics. At the beginning of that decade, John Major’s Conservative government also found itself in an economic disaster, with interest rates out of control as the UK crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (a day nicknamed Black Wednesday) and recession engulfed the land. But by the mid-90s, the somewhat dull and boring Major government had stabilised the economy, which was actually doing rather well for two full years before the next election – which Labour won with an unprecedented landslide. Despite the work that had been put in and the recovery that had been won, the public was sick of the Conservatives and unforgiving for the national humiliation of Black Wednesday several years before.
The question remains whether Sunak can – either through political alacrity, the will of the country, media bias or pure luck – carve a successful new narrative and pull off the biggest political comeback of our times.