A directionless leader? Image: Kay Roxby / Alamy Stock Photo

The government that stopped governing

Rishi Sunak’s administration has no animating purpose. The country is paying the price
October 2, 2023

A dying government struggling with the aftermath of a financial crisis. An awkward prime minister unable to make the transition from chancellor. Despondent MPs quitting in their dozens. An opposition flying high and 20 points ahead in the polls. There are plenty of parallels between the last year of Gordon Brown’s administration and Rishi Sunak’s current travails.

But one big difference is that Brown’s Labour government was highly active. Its last year saw a major new push in its plan to eradicate child poverty; the Equality Act, which has exerted an enormous influence on British institutions; the start of the HS2 rail project; big reform acts covering education, health and welfare; and the little-noticed creation of “combined authorities”, which would later morph into the mayoralties that are changing the face of local politics. Whether you approve of these things or not, there’s little doubt they left a long-term mark on the country.

This government, by contrast, is almost entirely becalmed. Sunak’s latest array of policy announcements mostly involves scrapping things, including parts of HS2 and various environmental targets. Insofar as there are any longer-term ideas, they are tangential and impossible to implement at present. The proposal for a “British baccalaureate” to replace A-levels is a case in point.

Sunak’s problem partly stems from a desire not to commit any money to anything, in the hope of creating “headroom” for tax cuts in the spring. (Though it should be noted this “headroom” is just an artefact of the way fiscal rules are constructed: Britain will still be borrowing heavily.) He is also weakened by the mess created by his predecessors. Almost every part of the public realm is so fragile that any substantive reform could knock it over completely. You can’t think, for instance, about restructuring the NHS when there are well over 7.5m people on waiting lists and demoralised doctors are engaged in an almost year-long industrial dispute.

Sunak also has a historically low-calibre cabinet—through a mixture of choice and circumstance. Brown had a group of senior colleagues, even if he often didn’t get on with them, who had been in and around government for a decade or more: Alistair Darling, David Miliband, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Jack Straw and so on. Sunak has a bunch of inexperienced mediocrities and Suella Braverman, who is a disaster zone. Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove are the only ones who can offer much guidance. Only Gove is trying to do anything meaningful, such as the much-needed Renters Reform Bill, and anything ambitious is quickly stymied by the Treasury or the whips. The rest are managing decline with varying degrees of competence. 

But these difficulties hide a bigger and more profound problem. After all, Brown’s government was beset with plenty of challenges of its own, not least a deep recession and the expenses scandal. Despite that, ministers still had a basic set of beliefs about what the country should look like and a broad shared desire to use their time in office to improve things. For all the TB/GB infighting—pointless factionalism being Labour’s kryptonite—there was never that much disagreement on the ultimate goals.

In contrast, it’s not at all clear what the purpose of the British centre-right is anymore. The Conservatives seem on the same trajectory as sister parties in the US, France and Italy that have been overpowered by a radical right offering media-friendly clickbait populism. There is a plausible modern centre-right agenda that could focus on building housing and infrastructure; boosting trade by rejoining the single market and customs union; and reforming a tax system which punishes workers. But none of this appeals to the ageing, nostalgic Tory party membership. Sunak doesn’t seem inclined to try and persuade them.

Much of the British state has drifted into learned helplessness

All of which means the upcoming King’s Speech will be long on headline-catching performative bills designed to create electoral dividing lines with Labour, but very short on any actual governing. The Tory manifesto for the next election will, likewise, be a cynical attempt to save a few seats, rather than a vision for the future.

Labour’s challenge, assuming they win, will be to pull Whitehall out of the torpor into which it has sunk. The civil service has got used to an absence of any reforming agenda. Much of the British state has drifted into learned helplessness, shrugging its shoulders haplessly as ministers make some new fantasy announcement that will lead nowhere, while the real problems mount up.

There are plans being developed by Starmer’s team to try and re-energise the system and give ministers and officials some crunchy long-term policy goals—in the form of missions—to get excited about. Though at the moment that’s hard to square with Labour’s fiscal caution and the absence of big ideas about how to achieve those missions. Britain has faced times as challenging before, but never with so little apparent effort being put in to finding solutions. For the next year, at least, the drift will continue.