Analysis: Can Rishi Sunak end the chaos and restore Britain’s credibility?
The rise of Rishi Sunak to the top job in British politics is remarkable. Just seven weeks ago he was comprehensively beaten by Liz Truss in the Conservative party’s leadership contest. Today, after emerging victorious in a leadership contest that was fast-tracked out of the wreckage of her short premiership, he is only an audience with King Charles III away from Downing Street.
Sunak will travel to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday morning for his audience with the King, after which he will become UK’s prime minister.
The man who served as Boris Johnson’s finance minister for two and a half years, only to resign and bring down Johnson’s government, now faces the unenviable task of picking up a reeling nation after Truss’s disastrous tenure.
He will do so, it’s fair to assume, by implementing the economic plan that he outlined during his failed leadership bid earlier this year. Sunak criticized Truss’ plans to slash taxes and fund day-to-day spending through borrowing, saying it would cause economic havoc.
He was proved right when Truss’ government implemented her plans in a “mini-budget,” which caused the pound to fall to its lowest level in decades and collapsed bond prices, sending borrowing costs soaring and pushing pension funds to the brink of insolvency.
As Sunak also predicted, rising interest rates drove up mortgage repayments, and lenders scrambled to pull their products from the market, dashing the hopes of many prospective homeowners almost overnight.
Britain’s international reputation had already taken a hit before Truss came to office. The endless scandals that ultimately forced Johnson from office, on top of his repeated threats to break international law over the Brexit deal he personally agreed with the European Union, had not made world leaders well-disposed towards the UK.
That’s not to say the UK is irrelevant on the world stage. The government’s support of Ukraine, for example, has won Britain – and particularly Johnson – praise from other Western leaders.
Former US National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote in Politico on Monday that “Britain has been the leading foreign power supporting Ukraine. Under the triumvirate of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, London was at the forefront of political resolve and leadership.”
Sunak’s accession can be directly attributed to the chaos of the past few months. He is seen as a safe pair of hands, having won wide praise for his handling of the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic, helping businesses and citizens with big government spending programs that saved many livelihoods. His job now is clear: To bring calm.
Unfortunately for Sunak, he has inherited a political party that has spent the past few years tearing chunks out of itself. The Conservative party of 2022 is defined by factionalism and split loyalties that made it ungovernable for both Johnson and Truss.
The party is divided on many more lines than left and right, but Sunak will likely have the most difficulty with the Brexiteer populist wing of the party that adored Johnson.
“The reality is, the hardest elements of the Brexiteer right probably didn’t back anyone because they know there is a row coming with the new PM over Brexit,” Salma Shah, a former Conservative adviser, told CNN. “One of the top priorities for Sunak will be negotiating the Northern Ireland Protocol (A disputed part of the post-Brexit deal). If it doesn’t start going their way, they can turn.”
Sunak can either ignore or appease these people, but it could mean having to swallow a large slice of humble pie.
“He can try and neutralize the people from that wing of the party who won’t forgive him over ‘betraying’ Boris or his fiscal restraint by appointing a cabinet that appeases them. Potentially, that means swallowing his pride and finding something for Boris and Liz Truss to do,” Shah added.
If he doesn’t then Johnson could cause Sunak problems from the backbenches, if he was in the mood for revenge.
“Presumably he won’t put him in the government which could mean he causes trouble on the backbenches. I guess they have to hope he gives up his seat and goes off to make money,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University.
Party management is something that might be out of Sunak’s hands in the immediate future. What is firmly in his gift, however, is economic policy and dealing with international partners.
“He’s someone with a lot of global experience outside of politics and also dealing with global figures as chancellor. He is a fluent communicator and he knows what he is talking about when it comes to the economy. So I think there is every chance he will be welcomed by the international community not only if he can settle the economy but also UK politics,” Bale added.
In an ideal world for Sunak, he would bring economic stability, and with it, bring political stability. But long-time observers of British politics will know that the two don’t always go hand in hand.
“He will have to implement policies because of Truss’s mini-budget that will be politically unpopular with different groups for different reasons,” said Vicky Pryce, former joint head of the UK’s Government Economic Service.
That, Pryce said, could mean austerity to balance the books, windfall taxes on energy firms, and reversing Truss’s idea to remove caps on bankers’ bonuses. “He has to balance policies that could enrage Conservative MPs against policies that could turn the public against him.”
For their part, Conservative MPs and advisers are a mix of relieved, furious, worried and in some cases defeated. Some think that the public will appreciate a bit of peace and quiet from the political mayhem. Some are beside themselves that the man who brought down Johnson got his way. Some believe that Sunak is going to be too soft on Brexit. Some believe that the next election is already lost.
There are in theory at least two years until the next general election will be held. That is more than enough time for Sunak to steady the ship and restore the Conservative’s dire poll ratings to something more competitive. But he needs to take his party with him.
And if the past few weeks are anything to go by, the new prime minister might become another Conservative leader who is forced to spend more time managing the internal politics of his own party than dealing with the massive problems facing his country.