The prime minister promised Britain a ‘new age of optimism’. On the evidence of his first week, the worst is yet to come
Rishi Sunak at No 10 Downing Street, London, October 2022. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA
His first week has not gone well. It’s felt long and eventful with a pile-up of errors that augur trouble ahead: politics is not a grasp of flow charts, but a subtle art. Rishi Sunak is a relative beginner and not, it seems, a quick learner.
His first great blunder, knowingly done, was appointing Suella Braverman home secretary. What can he have been thinking? What Keir Starmer called a “grubby deal” boomeranged back within days. She will be nothing but trouble, with her unravelling account of her leak to rightwing allies. Her adamant pledge to cut net immigration to an impossible “tens of thousands” shuns facts: over 270,000 people arrived in the year to March 2022, mainly with visas, while people arriving in small boats are a small but – thanks to the media – disproportionately visible minority. Her “dreams” of Rwanda and cruelty in cramming arrivals into squalid detention at the Manston processing centre has caused policy mayhem. But she relishes a firefight with ministers who want to both fill vacancies for scientists and IT specialists, and offer visas for Indians as part of a trade deal. Sunak left Michael Gove to pretend on TV that Braverman is “a first-rate front rank politician”. So much for the new honesty.
But she will be gone and forgotten soon. Sunak’s dreadful error in refusing to attend Cop27 is a far more serious act of political and moral stupidity. The insouciant arrogance of telling Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron that he is busy, as if they had no “pressing domestic issues”, ignores how much he needs them. He squanders the residual goodwill of the Cop26 leadership, the one remaining shard of the UK’s diminished reputation, battered since Brexit by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Banning the king from Cop27 looks clumsy. News that Sunak could make a U-turn dash to Egypt having learned that Johnson may go looks panicky. If he only stays for a brief grip-and-grin, that too will offend. His downgrading of the climate crisis and removal of Alok Sharma from the cabinet is not just disgraceful, but politically clumsy: he’s been warned that the right in Australia lost power after failing to take sufficient action on the climate crisis. While Sunak opposes onshore wind, with tax breaks for oil exploration, Labour’s green prosperity plan and Great British Energy company to invest in renewables is proving popular and has been spontaneously mentioned in focus groups.
Nonetheless, Sunak has his expected new leader poll bounce; after hitting 14%, his party had nowhere to go but up. Labour has only “dipped” to 44%, to the Tories’ 28% according to Opinium. Prof John Curtice is not risking his reputation when he says that historically, “any government presiding over a financial crisis doesn’t survive at the ballot box”. But the one chart Labour watches most anxiously is “trusted to run the economy”, and here Opinium gives Sunak the edge by 33% to 29%. We’ll see how long that survives brutal “choices” in the 17 November budget.
The expectation management has been comic to watch: be afraid of bitter medicine and “incredibly difficult decisions”, with savings as high as £70bn threatened. In his budget this time last year Sunak proclaimed, “the Conservatives are the real party of public services”, but now ministers are warned of stringent “efficiencies”. George Osborne, the grim reaper of austerity, has been in to advise: he was good at devolving the axe so councils took the hit, and now ministers are told to take responsibility for “choosing” their own cuts of 10-15%. Look at the state of the public realm, largely caused by the Osborne years. The courts backlog means thousands of cases are likely to be delayed until 2024. The asylum application backlog means 100,000 people wait in limbo for processing, which takes on average 480 days. School cuts are causing the social class gap in children’s achievement to rise steeply. Health and defence are said to be protected, but the NHS needs far more than stasis to survive winter and contain its waiting list of 7 million and rising, let alone start that workforce plan Jeremy Hunt campaigned for: the service will fall over without real money for social care to release patients from its beds.
All manner of frights are threatened, such as cutting benefits and even the vote-winning pension triple lock. Freezing tax thresholds is a silent income killer. Cutting capital spending is anti-growth and anti-levelling up when it comes to northern projects. For once, Conservative county council leaders are protesting against the axe falling on the safety of children and the frailest adults, but they should be threatening mass resignation from their party. Expect maximum pain for these vital but largely unseen care services, along with slashed international aid and arts budgets.
Remember this: these public deficits will need repaying. Beware of protecting pensioners at the expense of children’s education: neglect of the latter will build a greater future deficit in damage and lost productivity.
Expect clever thefts from Labour, stealing its idea of a windfall tax on oil, though the PM for Goldman Sachs will spare the banks, rolling in high-interest profits. He may cunningly cleanse his family’s tax record by taking on the Labour policy of abolishing non-dom status. As was leaked to the Sun, he may tax the UK homes of foreign millionaires living abroad. But whatever he does, Labour will respond with iron fiscal prudence, anxious to recapture that hard-won economic reputation: without it elections are always lost.
But even if the very worst threats don’t materialise, this budget will please few. Note the divisions in Torydom, with the Murdoch press playing it both ways: one Times leader is a paean to state-shrinking Trussonomics pushing for tax cuts for business, while the Sunday Times tells Sunak to go easy and “resist the urge to drag us back to austerity”. On his benches, MPs from Sharma to Jacob Rees-Mogg to Roger Gale are all already protesting: this unruly party will not sit quietly through abhorred policies while fearing for their seats. The Covid inquiry will not leave Sunak unscathed, while collapsing government in Northern Ireland is a result of Brexit, which he backed. Strike ballots go out to teachers this week, as waves of workers protest at average public sector pay rises of 2.4%, compared with the private sector’s 6.4%.
Perhaps no leader could have shown unwavering leadership at this time, but his bad decisions in week one hardly suggest the “future full of opportunity” or the “new age of optimism” he promised Mail readers. He pledges rashly to keep to Johnson’s 2019 manifesto, despite surely knowing that cakeism was always a delusion. The worst is yet to come.
- Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist