Rishi Sunak makes mistakes under pressure. Despite the calm manner, he is a surprisingly inconsistent politician. When he was chancellor he presented a spring statement in March that was denounced for its failure to help the poor; two months later he had to do it again, announcing generous help with energy bills, partly paid for by U-turning to bring in a windfall tax on oil and gas companies.
In the meantime his judgement was called into question when it was revealed that he had held on to his US green card long after he had supposedly committed himself to the service of the British people.
During the first Conservative leadership election this year he combined telling the party members what they didn’t want to hear about raising taxes with telling them whatever rubbish they did want to hear about anything else. As the campaign progressed he became more desperate, culminating in the embarrassment of his boast to members in Tunbridge Wells that he had diverted public funds from “deprived urban areas” to “areas like this”.
A similar desperation lay behind his much-criticised appointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary. That was the product of a cynical deal during the second leadership election, which lasted just four days, in which Braverman, a leading member of the European Research Group of MPs, backed Sunak rather than Boris Johnson.
Now he is being assailed for failing to fly to Sharm El-Sheikh for the next climate summit meeting, and for refusing to let King Charles go either.
Still, it is important to distinguish between the mistakes that matter and the ones that don’t. He didn’t run the right campaign to win the votes of Tory members, but he made the right arguments on the economy, and at least he hasn’t yet blown up a government at a lasting cost to people’s mortgages and to the public finances.
He made it at the second attempt, and many of the people who are most critical of Braverman’s return to the Home Office would have been among the most horrified by the return of Johnson to No 10, which is what the deal with Braverman helped to avert. If Sunak’s failure in the first leadership election was that he wasn’t ruthless enough, he can hardly be blamed for taking no chances the second time around.
He did deals to win the support of various factions of Tory MPs, which is why not just Braverman but Tom Tugendhat, Mark Harper, Gavin Williamson and Andrew Mitchell are all sitting around the (extended) cabinet table.
He did what he had to do to win, just as David Cameron promised to withdraw Conservative MEPs from the European People’s Party, the mainstream but strongly pro-EU bloc in the European parliament, when he defeated David Davis for the leadership in 2005. Just as Tony Blair borrowed large sums of money in secret to pay for Labour’s general election campaign that year, and later tried and failed to nominate some of the lenders for peerages.
So Sunak is an inconsistent and flawed politician, who has learned to stoop to the grubby compromises needed to gain power, but he is also better than the available alternatives, with the possible exception of Keir Starmer. Which is why it is a triumph of two-party democracy that, after a brief three-point turn in the dead end of Trussonomics, we have ended up with those two as the rival poles of our politics for the next two years.
Most of Sunak’s actual mistakes, as opposed to his necessary compromises, are the statistical noise of politics. He overdid the caution in the spring statement; and he was reckless in Tunbridge Wells (exaggerating a legitimate argument that there are areas of deprivation in rural areas too). But missing a trip to Egypt for what is essentially a follow-up, progress-chasing conference is unlikely to cost him anything at the next election. Focusing on the emergency at home rather than showboating about net zero abroad, as Johnson would have done, might seem the right priority to many voters.
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As for Braverman’s reappointment as home secretary, let us see how that works out. The attempt to stop the small boats destroyed one former darling of the Tory nationalists, Priti Patel; it will be a tough challenge for Braverman to prevent it destroying another. As a matter of brute politics, if Braverman makes progress that will help Sunak, but if she fails, the damage to him will be limited.
The Channel boats are important to voters, but let Sunak focus on what they care about above all, which is the cost of living, followed by the NHS. More mistakes will be made, but it must be hoped that they will be ordinary mistakes. If Sunak can restore the public finances, and if he can bring stability and focus to the problems of the NHS and social care, he might gain some credit for an economic recovery in 2024.
The next election may still be a write-off for the Conservatives, mainly because they have been in power for too long, but Conservative MPs were right to put Sunak in No 10: all politicians make mistakes, but this one will save more of their seats than Johnson would have done.