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Will Rishi Sunak end up being captured by the Tory right?

There are growing fears that Britain's new prime minister will try to make up for his lack of democratic legitimacy by resorting to ugly populism
Britain's newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech outside 10 Downing Street in central London, on 25 October 2022 (AFP)

Liz Truss left office on Tuesday as Britain’s shortest-lived and most incompetent prime minister, meaning that anyone who takes over is certain to be an improvement. 

This explains the surge of goodwill to her successor, Rishi Sunak.

Tory MPs know how close the party came to falling apart under Truss. They know the alternative to a Sunak premiership is electoral obliteration.

The financial markets have taken over the management of the British state - and they have chosen Rishi Sunak

His enemies are out of the game. The spectre of Boris Johnson, greatly diminished by last weekend’s shambolic tilt at the premiership, has vanished.

The disgraced former prime minister is now expected to restart work on his interrupted biography of Shakespeare. Truss, suffering from the political equivalent of post-traumatic stress, is finished.

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The Tory press - which bears a heavy share of responsibility for promoting Truss - has swung behind Sunak. So have the financial markets. This all-important development should be no surprise.

Over the past few weeks Britain has undergone "a financial coup d’etat" against Truss and her clueless Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. Simply put, the markets threatened chaos if they stayed in place. And further chaos if Johnson returned.

The markets have spoken

Much has been made, understandably so, of the fact that Sunak is the first British prime minister of Asian heritage. Far more important, in the current context, Sunak is the first former Goldman Sachs banker to enter No 10. The financial markets have taken over the management of the British state - and they have chosen Rishi Sunak. 

Rishi Sunak, Britain's latest prime minister, and the Middle East
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He joins a very long list of figures from the New York investment bank reaching international pre-eminence, including former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, former deputy prime minister of Egypt Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Sunak, who served as chancellor of the exchequer under Johnson for three years, understands the financial markets - and they trust him. 

No wonder sterling has risen and yields in gilts (British government debt) have fallen sharply since it became likely that Sunak would take over from Truss. What's more, luck is on his side. With gas prices falling much faster than expected, inflation will fall too, lifting pressure off interest rates. Sunak has more freedom of action than appeared likely over the summer.

But Sunak was not elected by the British people. He was appointed by Wall Street and the City of London. He is the London representative of the global financial markets. He will do what the markets demand.

But without a democratic mandate.

A looming recession

This takes me to the big question mark surrounding the Sunak premiership: how will he handle the looming recession?

Ever since John Maynard Keynes reinvented the laws of economics in the 1930s, governments have increased spending to combat recessions. With a financial black hole to be filled, Sunak’s masters in the financial markets will not allow him to boost output through fiscal methods. 

They will insist on cuts, forcing Britain into austerity. 

People walk in Greenwich Park with the office buildings of the Canary Wharf financial district in the background in London on the bank holiday, December 28, 2020
People walk in Greenwich Park in London, with the Canary Wharf financial district in the background, on 28 December 2020 (AFP)

Unemployment will rise. Living standards will fall faster than at any time in the post-war period. Public services will be slashed, meaning poverty and even destitution. Britain has not faced a period like this since the oil crisis in the 1970s, and possibly, I fear, even the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

So-called "Trussonomics" was an attempt to evade this predicament. Sunak will have to face it.

As chancellor, Sunak has proved that he has the financial skills to manage the national budget. Has this unelected prime minister got the political skills to explain spending cuts and job losses to the British people?

On the evidence so far, the answer is no. 

Sunak started out as favourite to win last summer’s Tory leadership campaign. He threw it away because he lacked charm, empathy and authority. It was quite something to lose to a candidate as useless as Truss, but Sunak managed it.

To his great credit, he did warn of the disastrous consequences of Truss’ economic plans and had the good sense to steer clear of her short-lived government.

But in other respects, he kowtowed to Tory members in his desperation to get the top job. Like her, he launched attacks on "activist lawyers" and stuck with the shaming and hopeless policy of shipping refugees to Rwanda

Captured by Tory right

When Truss disastrously proposed, in a letter to Conservative Friends of Israel, to ponder a shift of the British embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, hapless Sunak lacked the wit to steer clear of a daft policy certain to damage British interests.

Not to be outdone, Sunak actually moved in lockstep with Truss, saying that he, too, would consider ripping up British foreign policy in the Middle East in order to follow former US President Donald Trump’s decision to shift the US embassy. There is already evidence that, like Truss and Johnson before him, Sunak will end up being captured by the Tory right.

According to a disturbing report in The Times, Sunak has "assured Eurosceptics in private that he will maintain the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, stick with the Rwanda policy, introduce new legislation to prevent the European Convention on Human Rights blocking deportations, and to take a firm line on transgender ideology in schools".

Let's hope that Sunak possesses the courage to lead Britain out of the cesspit he inherits from Boris Johnson and Liz Truss

If this report is accurate, Sunak will seek to win the necessary political capital to pursue brutal austerity policies by pandering to the far right and waging culture wars against the most vulnerable people in the world. To put it another way, he will try to make up for his lack of democratic legitimacy by resorting to ugly populism.  

If so, he will deserve to fail.

Let’s hope Britain’s first prime minister of Asian heritage is better than that, and possesses the courage to lead Britain out of the cesspit he inherits from Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. 

If so there's a chance, with a lot of luck, that Sunak could become a great prime minister at this most difficult time. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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