HThis first week did not go well. It feels long and hectic with a pile of mistakes that bode trouble: politics is not a mastery of flow charts, but a subtle art. Rishi Sunak is a relative beginner and not, it seems, a quick learner.
His first big blunder, knowingly committed, was to name Suella Braverman home secretary. What could he have been thinking? What Keir Starmer called a “dirty deal” rebounded within days. She’ll only be trouble, with her sort out the account of his flight to right-wing allies. His categorical promise to reduce net immigration to an impossible “tens of thousands” avoids the facts: more than 270,000 people arrived in the year to March 2022, mostly on visas, while those arriving in small boats are a small but – thanks to the media – disproportionately visible minority. His “dreams” of Rwanda and the cruelty of cramming newcomers into squalid detentions in Manston Treatment Center caused political chaos. But she is relishing a shootout with ministers who want to both fill vacancies for scientists and computer specialists, and offer visas to Indians as part of a trade deal. Sunak quit Michael Gove to claim on TV that Braverman is “a top notch politician”. So much for the new honesty.
But she will soon be gone and forgotten. Sunak’s terrible mistake in refusal to attend COP27 is a much more serious act of political and moral stupidity. The reckless arrogance of telling Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron that he is busy, as if they don’t have “pressing domestic issues”, ignores how much he needs it. It squanders the residual goodwill of the Cop26 leadership, the only remaining fragment of the UK’s diminished reputation, battered since Brexit by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Forbid the king of cop27 looks clumsy. News that Sunak may turn back to Egypt after learning that Johnson can leave looks panicked. If he only stays for a brief hold and smile, that too will offend. His downgrading of the climate crisis and the removal of Alok Sharma from the cabinet is not only shameful, but politically awkward: he was warned that the Australian right had 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 Major British energy company investing in renewable energy is proving popular and was spontaneously mentioned in focus groups.
Nonetheless, Sunak has his new leader poll awaited; after reaching 14%, his party had nowhere to go but upwards. Labor only ‘dipped’ to 44%, compared to 28% for the Tories according to Opinion. Professor John Curtice does not risk his reputation when he says that historically, “any government presiding over a financial crisis does not survive the ballot box”. But the one chart Labor is watching most anxiously is ‘trust in the management of the economy’, and here Opinium gives Sunak a 33% to 29% advantage. We will see how long this will survive the brutal “choices” of the November 17 budget.
The management of expectations has been comical to watch: being afraid of bitter medicine and “incredibly difficult decisions”, with savings of up to £70billion at risk. In his budget this time last year, Sunak proclaimed that ‘the conservatives are the real party for public services’, but now ministers are being warned about strict ‘efficiencies’. George Osborne, the austerity reaper, gave his opinion: he was good at delegating the axe, so councils took the hit, and now ministers are being asked to take responsibility for ‘choosing’ their own 10 cuts at 15%. Look at the state of the public domain, largely caused by the Osborne years. The backlog of cases means that thousands of cases are likely to be delayed until 2024. The backlog of asylum applications means 100,000 people wait in limbo for the treatment, which takes average 480 days. School cuts lead to a sharp increase in the gap between social classes in the results of children. Health and defense are said to be protected, but the NHS needs much more than stasis to survive the winter and contain its 7 million waiting list and rising, not to mention beginning that workforce plan that Jeremy Hunt campaigned for: the ward will collapse without real money for social care to release patients from their beds.
All sorts of scares are threatened, such as cuts in benefits and even the triple blocking of pensions winning the vote. Freezing tax thresholds is a silent income killer. Reducing capital spending is anti-growth and anti-levelling when it comes to projects in the North. For once, Tory county council leaders are protesting the ax that strikes at the safety of the most vulnerable children and adults, but they are expected to threaten mass resignations from their party. Expect maximum pain for these vital but largely invisible care services, as well as shrinking international aid and arts budgets.
Remember this: these public deficits will have to be repaid. Be careful not to protect retirees to the detriment of children’s education: neglecting the latter will build a larger future deficit in damages and loss of productivity.
Expect smart thefts from Labour, stealing their idea for a windfall oil tax, though the Goldman Sachs premier will spare the banks, generating profits at high interest rates. He can shrewdly clean up his family’s tax record by adopting Labor’s policy of abolishing non-dom status. As has been disclosed to the Sun, it may tax uk houses foreign millionaires living abroad. But whatever it does, Labor will respond with iron-clad fiscal caution, keen to regain that hard-won economic reputation: without it, elections are always lost.
But even if the worst threats do not materialize, this budget will please only a few. Note the divisions in Torydom, with Murdoch’s press playing back and forth: a Times executive hymns Trussonomics, shrinking the state, pushing for corporate tax cuts, while the Sunday Times told Sunak to take it easy and “resist the urge to drag us back to austerity”. On its benches, MPs from Sharma to Jacob Rees-Mogg to Roger Gale are all already protesting: unruly will not sit quietly through abhorred politicians while fearing for their seats. Covid survey will not leave Sunak unscathed, while the collapse of the government in Northern Ireland is the result of Brexit, which he supported. Strike ballots are being sent out to teachers this week as waves of workers protest against average public sector wage increases of 2.4%, compared to 6.4% in the private sector.
Perhaps no leader could have shown unwavering leadership at that time, but his bad decisions in the first week hardly hint at the “future full of opportunity” or the “new era of optimism” he promised Mail readers. He recklessly pledges to uphold Johnson’s 2019 manifesto, though he surely knows cakewalking has always been an illusion. The worst is yet to come.