Voices: Will a new prime minister change the government’s policies? (Spoiler: probably not)

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Sunak must sell himself as the candidate who is prepared to tell the country what it doesn’t want to hear (Getty)
Sunak must sell himself as the candidate who is prepared to tell the country what it doesn’t want to hear (Getty)

“I was chained to a lunatic for the past two and a half years, but now I am free to govern in the national interest” – that was the subtext of Rishi Sunak’s video launching his leadership campaign on Friday. Now that the fantasist prime minister is on the way out, we can get back to good government and reasonable policies, he was saying (if we read between the lines of his autocue).

It was an unusual message, warning against “fairy tales” at precisely the moment when the Conservative Party and the nation want to be diverted from the collapse of Boris Johnson’s bluster-based government with new fantasies of a better tomorrow.

It was a message partly directed over Sunak’s shoulder at the outgoing prime minister, telling him off for his refusal to accept the constraints of fiscal responsibility, but it was mostly directed at the other candidates, many of whom have taken up the slogan of tax cuts without the faintest idea of how to pay for them.

This is brave to the point of folly. The whole point of a leadership campaign is to promise “the moon on a stick”, as Mark Jenkinson, the Tory MP for Workington, put it. “Let me worry about how I deal with three chancellors and a cabinet of 160,” he said, parodying the leadership pitches that he and his colleagues have been hearing for some months now.

Sunak has decided to make a virtue of necessity. He is the chancellor who put up taxes, for the obvious reason that there had been a pandemic, and so he has no choice but to explain that any promise to cut taxes has to be paid for – in the form of either spending cuts (“austerity”) or more borrowing at higher interest rates.

Therefore he must sell himself as the candidate who is prepared to tell the party, as well as the country, what it doesn’t want to hear. Nor does such a downbeat message apply only to the economy. Johnson’s departure may have raised expectations of a wider change in the direction of the government – expectations that are likely to be disappointed.

Anyone who thinks that the Conservatives’ attitude to international law is going to be transformed has not been paying attention. Sunak has been on the cautious end of the debate in government about unilaterally rewriting the Northern Ireland protocol – he is not keen on a trade war with the EU, for some reason – but the case for a tough negotiating stance with the EU has been pressed by Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, who is probably still Sunak’s leading rival for the succession.

As strenuously as The Independent believes that tearing up treaties is a bad thing, no candidate for the Tory leadership is going to argue that we should play nicely in our talks with the EU. One fixed point of this election is no backsliding on Brexit, and the Tory party’s view is that EU intransigence has made rewriting the protocol unavoidable.

In any case, Johnson’s international law-breaking can be complicated. Lord Geidt resigned as the prime minister’s ethics adviser because the government intends to keep steel tariffs in defiance of World Trade Organisation rules. The Labour Party branded Johnson a moral pariah as a result, but does it want to scrap steel tariffs?

When Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the international trade secretary, said in the Commons this week that the national interest “requires action to be taken which may be in tension with normal rules and procedures”, Labour supported the “extension of safeguards”, saying they would come as a welcome relief to the British steel industry.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

Other policies by which the opposition is more sincerely outraged, such as the Rwanda asylum plan, are not going to be changed. The limited changes proposed by Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, to the Human Rights Act, which implements the European Convention on Human Rights in UK law, will go ahead.

The main change ushered in by the new prime minister will be one of tone and style. On the big questions of taxing and spending, the path has already been set by Sunak until the next election. If revenue is higher than expected, whoever is chancellor would rather cut personal taxes next year than reduce the planned corporation-tax rise, which is the fashionable cause of this week. But their main task will be to explain why lower taxes producing higher revenues is a fairy story.

And a change of tone and style is important. One of the roles of prime minister that Johnson performed badly was that of teacher. A leader has to explain to the nation what the government is doing and why, and Johnson’s first instinct was often to deny that it was doing it.

Sunak has shown the kind of courage that only a front runner can, by setting himself up as the candidate who will tell people that the years of pretending that you can eat your cake and still have it are over. Let us see if the Conservative Party is ready for its appointment with reality.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting