Sunak's skills may save the Tories yet


Sunak won the MPs, but it'll be almost impossible to win Britain

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Image by Lauren Hurley

By Ethan Reuter

Sunak is well-liked by most Conservative MPs and the country for his role in the pandemic and his respectful distance during Truss’ impressive self-implosion. He importantly has sway with the voters that matter most, however, that doesn’t mean he will find it plain-sailing into 2024: the job of PM is and will be anything but.

Sunak faces a disastrous economic outlook. Most notably, national debt at an incredible percentage of Britain's GDP, a cost of living crisis rising to truly dangerous levels heading into winter, a brutally damaged view of Britain’s economic credibility on the international stage, and a nation unwilling to face the spending cuts or tax rises needed to return to a healthy economy.

This is to say nothing of the political challenges that the youngest PM since the age of Pitt the Younger faces. Sunak lacks the relationships that years in the Commons tea rooms or in Portcullis House creates and strengthens. He also hasn’t had a full range of experience doing different red boxes, having become an MP in 2015, and then been catapulted into political stardom five years later after the removal of Sajid Javid as Chancellor. It's clear his political challenges number as many as his economic ones. Firstly, a divided party reminiscent of the Labour Party under Corbyn and his merry band of socialists. Secondly, factions of MPs and most party members blame him specifically for wielding the knife in King Boris’ fall from grace. Thirdly, and most importantly, a seemingly irrecoverable point deficit in the polls to Starmer’s Labour. Seems simple enough, eh Rishi?

As you might have guessed, it doesn’t look like the easiest of circumstances for the incoming Prime Minister. Each Prime Minister in the 21st century has faced challenges starting the job, however, none have faced both political and economic turmoil in unison to such a devastating degree as Sunak. His political life and his party’s life hang on his ability to aptly find the best solutions within the red boxes of government.

The Conservatives have seemingly always called themselves the natural party of government – they are the world’s most successful political party throughout history after all – but recently, they’ve forgotten why that is. To win requires policy based on practicality over everything. Majorities require pragmatism, not politics; it’s competence, not convictions, that win elections, and no political organisation, or party has better understood this throughout history than the Conservatives. Rishi cannot let ideology, division, and despair reign: if he does, his party’s dominance will be over for a generation. Sunak understands this necessity more than most, and therein lies his roadmap to victory.

To even see a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel in 2024, the Prime Minister, and his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, must be crystal clear about the challenges that face our country and address them accordingly. This includes those that they may wish to sweep under the rug, Brexit and Northern Ireland specifically. In economic terms, without management in expectation, there can be little economic trust, no economic recovery, and certainly, an election defeat the size of the Blair years. Without proper economics, expect Portillo moments aplenty and a return to the night shift for another ambitious masochist. Sunak might as well hand them the whip himself.

Sunak’s communication will also require an expert level of finesse to not seem out of touch with a net worth of £730m. His easy-going, Cameron-esque charm may get him over the line against his politically rigid opposite number at PMQs or in an election campaign, however, he cannot wear Gucci loafers whilst meeting the marginalised, don designer during the debates or forgetfully forgo his butler’s butler’s bouquet of flowers during the next expenses scandal. Communication is key. You get the point, let’s hope he does as well.

Finally, Sunak must also convey a united front. Cabinet appointments for Sunak display a message to the Conservative MPs, the members, and the country: he must not let them get out of control. The cabinet must stick to the middle ground. It’s imperative they strike a fine balance between the Conservative right, who often appear to be betrayed by statistics, tofu, and reality in a broader sense, and secondly, the middle English voter, who wants competence, economic and political, and for their household shop to stop taking so much out their pay packets every week. The cabinet cannot be a place for unpopular politics, fuelled with vitriolic anger at imaginary enemies. Sunak must look like the first amongst the grown-ups; policies pursuing populism and pandering are one way of ensuring this doesn’t happen.

Sunak’s job will be arduous. His political journey is about to get a lot dirtier, and while not likely, there is a way out of this for Sunak’s brand of conservatism. It will take exactly the correct levels of communication, competence, pragmatism, and policy to unite the party, cabinet, and country. Get it wrong, and it's a circular Conservative Party firing squad. Get it right, and maybe, just maybe, a Conservative majority is close to possible. I wait with bated breath.