It’s time to face facts: Rishi Sunak is just no good

In the middle of an unprecedented NHS crisis, the UK seems to have a caretaker government that doesn’t care much at all

January 09, 2023
Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A New Year interview with a new prime minister on the country’s flagship politics show ought to be a good moment for a leader to frame their policy agenda, engage with the public and generate positive headlines. In Rishi Sunak’s hands it became another political pratfall. On Sunday, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg repeatedly pressed Sunak on whether he used private healthcare and pointed out the public interest in knowing the answer. Sunak repeatedly dodged the question.

Of course, Sunak has the right to consult private doctors if he wishes—and yet that is entirely beside the point. He should have sensed that the question was especially pertinent and sensitive at the height of an unprecedented crisis in the NHS. He should have realised that it would gather momentum and consume more space in the media if he refused to answer it. And he should have understood that his refusal to answer not only made him look suspicious and evasive, but tapped into one of the Conservatives’ oldest and deepest weaknesses: the notion that they are not fully invested in state provision because their personal interests are too far removed from ordinary people’s.

The appearance summed up Sunak’s communication skills: flat-footed and tone-deaf. The prime minister has not found a way of speaking to interviewers or directly addressing the public that feels comfortable or authentic. For the most part he either sounds as though he is reading out a spreadsheet, or over-emphasises every other word with a rictus smile as though auditioning to present children’s television.

The PM’s political problem is not simply that he is communicating poorly to the public—he is also underperforming in front of his own MPs. Sunak is routinely failing to deliver competent or convincing appearances at the weekly sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions. He has no consistent lines of attack against Labour leader Keir Starmer except for the fact Starmer once backed Jeremy Corbyn. Several weeks ago, in a row over tax breaks for private schools, he appeared to call the 93 per cent of parents who can’t or won’t send their children to private schools unaspirational.

A special low point came on 9th November, when Starmer tackled the prime minister on the promotion and resignation of Gavin Williamson, and Sunak gave the impression of having both mentally and physically checked out. At one point he literally had to be nudged by Dominic Raab to rise to the despatch box, and when he did, he appeared totally defeated. Since then, he has appeared fractionally more confident, but still failed to land any decisive blows on the Opposition—or much dented its lead in the polls.

Sunak’s poor communication skills are not offset by political judgement. While the PM’s reputation for quiet managerialism helped to steady both the markets and his parliamentary party after the political and economic convulsions of the Liz Truss premiership, he has repeatedly exposed his lack of instinct and experience. He undermined his earliest pledges to govern with integrity and in the national interest by reappointing as Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who had resigned just days earlier for breaking the Ministerial Code, and, according to numerous reports, acted unlawfully in her treatment of asylum seekers. He also should have been aware of credible allegations of bullying made against Williamson and Raab, and yet promoted both to his Cabinet from the backbenches. Sunak’s latest appointment is of the journalist James Forsyth—his close friend and staunch media cheerleader—to be his political secretary. Obviously the PM is free to appoint whomever he wishes to that role, but it does not give the impression of a leader who is willing to hear hard truths or be dislodged from his comfort zone.

Sunak’s poor judgement and communication skills might be forgiven if he showed ambition for the country allied with competence. So far he has not. It is not simply that he makes a virtue of near-anonymity while the cost-of-living crisis accelerates, industrial relations nosedive and the health service approaches collapse. It is that he has no discernible agenda or vision.

Last week’s set-piece speech at Plexal, a tech campus in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Village in Stratford, east London—the first of his premiership—was notable principally for its narrow scope. Most of the targets he announced were not new and could be easily delivered, and one, on illegal migration, merely offered another opportunity to demonise asylum seekers. None of the five pledges touched on the crisis in A&E which has reportedly cost hundreds of lives a week as a result of delayed ambulances and treatment. The government has even reportedly abandoned the moderate reforms to childcare proposed by Truss, which might have helped women return to the workplace and increased national productivity.

Under Sunak’s leadership there is a profound listlessness in British politics. Nobody says, does or changes anything. At a time of profound national malaise, the country appears to have a caretaker government that does not actually care much at all.

Of course, none of this means that we are heading for an early general election, or that the Conservatives are once again planning a political assassination. Most Tory MPs appear to have concluded that, no matter how insipid the prime minister is, removing him would cause the party even more electoral harm. And yet Sunak shows no signs of knowing how to reverse his party’s fortunes, or even particularly wanting to.

The truth is that the PM has always been over-promoted and over-fêted. Misjudgements over his Green Card, his wife’s non-dom status, his Covid fine and subsequent failure to resign all pointed to a deep political ineptitude. Sunak has reached his current position by repeatedly finding himself in the right place at the right time. In February 2020, he was promoted from relative obscurity to chancellor only when Sajid Javid unexpectedly resigned, and because Boris Johnson and his then-adviser Dominic Cummings considered him pliable. A few weeks later he was handed one of the greatest political gifts of any chancellor in recent memory: the ability to spend billions of pounds to save a vast tranche of the workforce from imminent destitution. It was only when the crisis of the pandemic abated that people began to scrutinise Sunak more closely, and when party members had a vote they chose his opponent.

The longer the prime minister remains in office, the more he reveals the basic fact: Rishi Sunak is just no good.