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Rishi Sunak, as far as Rishi Sunak is concerned, got where he is today by being true to his principles. In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference he not so much hammered as machine gunned that point home.
“I remember over five years ago being told that if I backed Brexit my political career would be over before it had even begun,” he said then. “Well I put my principles first and I always will.”
It was considered fairly punchy stuff, not least as, at the time, Brexit was quite rightly being blamed for the fact that no one could buy any petrol and the supermarket shelves were half empty.
A few weeks later, the Office for Budget Responsibility, which provides independent economic analysis to the government, concluded that Brexit would, in the long term, do double the damage to the UK economy as a one in a century pandemic that shut down the world and required Sunak to borrow about £300bn in order to directly pay around nine million people’s wages for well over a year.
So in some ways, it’s a strange thing to brag about, not least for its beyond-Brent “the bad news is you’ve lost your job, the good news is I’ve got a promotion” vibes.
Sunak, naturally, is hoping that where he’s got to today isn’t going to be where he ends up tomorrow. But if he really does think that being true to his principles is what’s got him where is today then he’s got a bit of a problem on his hands. Because absolutely everything he’s currently doing runs entirely against them.
It must be somewhat odd, to be as devout a Eurosceptic as he is (he was writing Eurosceptic articles in the Winchester College newspaper in the late 1990s, and his views on the subject are unevolved), and to end up doing what he’s doing.
He’s a Eurosceptic for the same reasons as everyone was a Eurosceptic back then. For the old school reasons – because he believes in low regulation, low taxation, and the passive, cruel, right wing society that comes with it.
And yet, here he is, the actual chancellor of the exchequer, and be in no doubt – only the chancellor of the exchequer because of Brexit, and yet it is he who has set the highest rate of taxation for seventy odd years, and is spending absolutely extraordinary amounts of public cash, to the undisguised disgust of the entire Daily Telegraph comments section – his people, in other words – at the behest of the guy, Boris Johnson, who made Brexit happen.
His strategy for dealing with this clear torment is to say what he believes, and hopes that it will conceal what he is actually doing. It’s not merely that he ended his monster tax-and-spend budget with three sentences about how he believes in low taxation.
He was interviewed by the BBC’s Faisal Islam on Thursday morning, who came armed with an uncomfortable fact. After all he was doing, all he was spending, all his extra taxes, all independent economic analysis on the subject, even the government’s own analysis, forecasts that living standards will fall for at least the next two years.
Sunak’s response to this unfortunate analysis was to transform his face into a mask of avuncular compassion and explain that, actually, “What [that analysis] doesn’t include is the spending on public services, and that does bring value to people’s lives.”
This might seem like nothing, but it’s not. This is a Conservative chancellor, and a instinctively old school, dry, right wing one too, explaining that, actually, it’s wrong to say that high tax is bad for living standards. Because taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor is good.
He knows, very well, that he doesn’t believe this, even if it might be true. He’s doing what he needs to get by, waiting for his opportunity. It’s more than likely he’s doing a very good job at it.
To go along with things, at the very highest level, and somehow remain unscathed and untainted by them is one of the most crucial skills of politics (most of the likely candidates to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader had first refused to serve in his shadow cabinet, and then, eventually, accidentally left politics altogether, via the emergency exit of the Liberal Democrats. Keir Starmer stuck around the whole time).
But one does have to wonder whether Sunak himself is wondering quite what he might stand to inherit. The Conservatives are an election-winning machine precisely because they have no principles, other than to win elections, and at the moment, said principles involve calling themselves the Conservatives while governing as Gordon Brown.
In a few years’ time, it may well be that prime minister Sunak is leading a party, and a country, that has no interest in his principles at all, and he will be wondering how on earth he got there.