After the calamitous two-month detour into the unfunded tax cuts of Trussonomics — and an unsettling flirtation with a return by the discredited Boris Johnson — Conservative MPs have backed the best of the available options to be their next leader and Britain’s next premier. Rishi Sunak has the right experience and outlook to take control at a time of deep economic crisis. Far less certain is whether he can restore any semblance of unity to his party, and whether today’s Conservatives have any capacity to become once again a serious party of government.
Sunak is the first British Asian premier, marking a significant step forward in creating governing institutions that more closely reflect those they govern. The prospect of a fiscally literate leader has begun to calm financial markets. Though he is the youngest prime minister in modern British history, Sunak has proved himself in one of the great offices of state. As chancellor during Covid-19, he implemented innovative support measures, despite occasional missteps.
Yet the auguries are hardly positive that the Conservatives can become a disciplined political force once more. A third of the parliamentary party backed Liz Truss in their final vote in the summer leadership contest; to suggest she was foisted on largely unwilling MPs by the party members’ vote is disingenuous. In the truncated contest following Truss’s defenestration, a third or more were ready to back other candidates. One, Penny Mordaunt, has few of the credentials to take the reins mid-crisis despite a stint as defence secretary. The other, Johnson, was forced out only in July as unsuitable for the job.
That Johnson spent an entire weekend plotting a comeback is further proof of his narcissism. His withdrawal — despite his claim to have enough MP backers to run — should mark the end of his ambitions for a return to high office. Yet his intervention ensured Sunak could not take over without one more farcical episode playing out in the Conservative political psychodrama.
The party has also changed leader for a second time midterm through a deeply undemocratic process of its own devising. UK voters should have had the chance to choose their next leader in a general election, as this newspaper argued last week. Instead, they have a new premier who did not make a single public statement during the latest contest. If Sunak cannot quickly restore stability, an election will be unavoidable.
He inherits a deeply fractured party facing decisions on issues such as spending and immigration that will inflame the faultlines. Sunak is under pressure from the right wing to scrap post-Brexit trading rules with Northern Ireland, poisoning relations with the EU.
The incoming premier will be well-advised to keep as his chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who has already dumped much of Trussonomics and begun charting a course to fiscal stability which he is due to detail on October 31. Coming from different wings of the party, each man could provide some political cover for the other. Sunak should assemble a cabinet based on competence, not fealty.
He and his team should focus, above all, on the overwhelming priority of restoring his party, and the country’s, reputation for fiscal competence. The public finances and the broader economy need to be put back on an even keel while dealing with the cost of living squeeze, and a credible plan for tax and spending agreed. Despite its now record-low standing in opinion polls, the new cabinet should jettison the obsessive focus on whether the Conservatives can win the next election, and concentrate on providing effective government. Its only, faint, hope of achieving the former lies in first delivering the latter.