wI am used to the fact that Rishi Sunak has only two speeds: slow repetition of his five political “priorities” and politely affirming the worst rhetoric of his party. If he does not answer questions by reciting the five promises, he attacks abandoned lawyers, “wakes up for nothing” or invents violent means to detain and deport asylum seekers. Both, to some extent, are performances: robotic recitations to make it clear that, after a series of indecisive Tory prime ministers, an adult is back in charge . The rightwing populist setting, meanwhile, was designed for his own party and the Tory press.
But sometimes another Sunak appears in flashes of the third gear: the self-pitying and failed prime minister. One who seems to be saying: look, you don’t understand how much I sacrificed for you people.
Last week, the prime minister told ITV News that he was suffering from political disease in the cause of low inflation. His argument seems to be that by not doing what the people want – increasing government spending to reduce the cost of living – he is serving the long-term welfare. “It might make everyone feel better in the short term to borrow more money to do more things,” he told political editor Robert Peston. “I won’t do that.” This is now a familiar piece of Sunak rhetoric. Earlier this year, he justified his refusal to give what he called a “huge” pay rise to nurses in England for the same reason. He even said he would not make his “life” any easier during the Conservative party leadership contest against Liz Truss last year. It seemed a surprise to him, or at least something that hadn’t sunk in yet, that being prime minister wasn’t about his own martyrdom.
On some level, Sunak’s pained parents who dish out hard truths persona is familiar with Thatcherite ideology: a morality tale in which self-sacrifice pays off. But Sunak delivered it with condescending impatience rather than grace, revealing something deeper about himself. It’s hard to avoid the impression that here is a man who avoided a peaceful private life and made even more exorbitant amounts of money in finance in order to serve the public – and now he’s angry that it’s all even more painful than his frankness. have patience for. The British people are not shareholders that he can give a PowerPoint presentation spelling out the financial picture, but people who have bad feelings about feeding and housing themselves, who rightly asking about an economic system that has failed them.
Some of it is personality. Now it’s very clear that Sunak is increasingly impatient with – and away from – a public that doesn’t really know what he and his government have done for them. Last week, the Liberal Democrats accused Sunak of being “woefully out of touch” when he appeared to tell people struggling with high energy bills that they don’t understand that, sure, the bills are high, but could be even higher. “A typical family has about half of their energy bills paid by the government in the last few months,” he said. “Now you wouldn’t have seen that because you’ve got your energy bill, it’s so high and you’d be: ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going on?’ but what you don’t realize, perhaps, is that before that happens, the £1,500 has already been removed, and the government is covering it.” In other words, the public would do better to look at the numbers that are not on their bills than what is actually on them, and stop asking this very busy man so many stupid questions.
In addition, last month, he was put on trial when a radio interviewer pressed him on his use of jets and helicopters to get around, saying it was “an efficient use of time” for of a man who is very busy, and points out the interviewer as having a hell of a time. a strawman, accusing him of thinking “that the answer to climate change is to make people stop doing everything they do, to stop people flying, to stop people going on vacation . I mean, I think that’s the completely wrong approach”.
There is an argument that these are inevitable PR glitches on the part of someone who is constantly being scrutinized. Sunak’s supporters sometimes tell me that he is not only good in the media; he is really hardworking and loves his team. But these tetchy statements betray a real sense of powerlessness, misdirected by the public and the media. He is really backed into a corner, not only by his own limitations, but by his party and ideological positions. Those Thatcherite convictions have either been played out – there is little left to privatize – or prevent her from actually fixing Britain’s ailing economy. He won’t raise property or capital gains taxes, or seriously consider price controls to control inflation, or consider, Maggie forbids, borrowing to invest in the kind of green tech or insulation that frees up the consumers from energy companies and the whims of distant warring powers. What is revealed is an isolated man without movement.
He is still being held back by his own party. No amount of hard graft will defeat the rabid Johnsonites, Brexit obsessives and loudmouths who say refugees should “go back to France”. They can only be comforted and live in cabinet jobs. And so he is stuck, unable to look inward and admit that Tory policies are the problem, or outwardly to confront the excesses of his own party. He is a man, to adapt the words of the comedian Stewart Lee, “caught between two different forms of cowardice”.
But I don’t want to spend a lot of time choosing Sunak. After all, his style of political anger is not limited to him: it is part of a dead-end consensus in Westminster. It was echoed by Keir Starmer’s rant about all the “difficult” and “tough” decisions he had to make when under pressure to make promises he had made or abandoned. The two party leaders agreed that people’s expectations should be curbed, narrow the views. It speaks volumes about the direction of British politics that, as the general election approaches, their job is to find more ways to not promise.