THE ECONOMIST: From technocrat to populist, Rishi Sunak’s tenure as UK PM has been one of constant change

The Economist
5 Min Read
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, announces the date for the UK General Election at Downing Street on May 22.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, announces the date for the UK General Election at Downing Street on May 22. Credit: Peter Nicholls/Getty Images

Over the patter of the rain and the sound of protesters’ speakers blasting Things Can Only Get Better, an anthem of New Labour, it was almost impossible to hear Rishi Sunak outside 10 Downing Street on May 22nd.

The words were close to inaudible but the message was clear: the prime minister had spoken to the king, Parliament was to be dissolved and an election was coming on July 4th.

The decision is impulsive, illogical and entirely in keeping with the manner in which Mr Sunak has governed.

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Calling an election earlier than many had expected has some small merit. The inflation figure for the year to April, released earlier in the day, was slightly higher than expected, at 2.3 per cent.

Although Mr Sunak claimed victory (“inflation is back to where it should be”) hopes of early interest-rate cuts by the Bank of England, which would relieve pain for mortgage holders, had gone. Higher borrowing costs also leave little room for another round of tax cuts in the autumn.

The main benefit of delaying, at least in the eyes of the government, had disappeared. So why wait?

But the counter-argument is simple. Mr Sunak heads a government that is as unpopular now as it was during the nadir of Liz Truss, when inflation was over 11 per cent, interest rates were marching ever higher and the then-chancellor could not appear on television without an accompanying graphic of sterling collapsing. Economically, things have improved. Inflation is much lower; quarterly growth is near the top of the g7 league table; and real wages are flying. But Tory polling has not responded.

The party stands at 21 per cent in the polls—worse even than what they scored when Ms Truss’s economic experiment blew up. If he wins the election, Mr Sunak will be the most unpopular leader ever to manage that feat. No matter. The great gamble has begun.

Throughout his career, whatever mess Mr Sunak has found himself in was almost always of his own making. As chancellor, Mr Sunak spent his days dealing with the chaotic wants of Boris Johnson, a man Mr Sunak had campaigned for to be prime minister.

As prime minister he spent months renegotiating the terms of a deal in Northern Ireland he had previously whole-heartedly supported. Britain’s economic woes—of high inflation and low productivity growth—have been exacerbated by its departure from the European Union, a decision Mr Sunak was keen on. He practises a rather odd style of politics: he cancelled a high-speed rail link to Manchester while in Manchester.

If big calls are bodged, so are small ones. Mr Sunak’s career demonstrates a weakness for ideas that are at best gimmicks and at worst boneheaded.

As a backbencher, he was a loud supporter of freeports, which shuffle economic activity around rather than generating it. During the peak of a hysterical bubble about non-fungible tokens (nfts), Mr Sunak, then chancellor, pushed the Royal Mint to issue its own. (The plan was quietly dropped in 2023, by which point most NFTs had become worthless.)

Britain Politics
Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak will go head-to-head in the United Kingdom's general election in July. Credit: AP

For a man who says he has a plan, Mr Sunak operates in a rather last-minute way. Even setting aside the weather, this was not a smooth election launch. Cabinet ministers scurried back from their duties, no matter how important.

David Cameron, the foreign secretary, rushed back from Albania, where he had been welcomed with a street lined with Union Jacks and a gigantic photo of himself.

The government in Tirana is responsible for one of the few successes of Mr Sunak’s term in office: a deportation deal that has dramatically reduced the numbers of young Albanians crossing the Channel in inflatable boats.

This was a strange way of saying “thank you”.

The decision to hurl himself at the electorate at short notice is no surprise from a man who has engaged in a “reset” every six months he has been in office. First, there was Rishi the technocrat. Then came Rishi the unconvincing populist, a scourge of wokeness and greenery. Now it is Rishi the guarantor of Britain’s security. A snap election comes just a few weeks after the party let it be known that an autumn election was most likely.

Mr Sunak’s slogan is “stick with the plan” but he has stuck with very little. Even the policies he hails are the ones he once opposed. As chancellor Mr Sunak pushed to increase taxes paid by employees; as prime minister, he has made a show of cuts for the same people. As chancellor, Mr Sunak criticised a wacky and cruel scheme to send asylum-seekers from Britain to Rwanda. As prime minister, Mr Sunak has made the scheme a flagship policy.

What alternative did he have to calling an early election? Waiting. Hoping something turns up is not a brave choice but it is a logical one. Things happen. Labour is underbaked, too. Its advisers are inexperienced; its front bench does not groan with talent. Rather than being tested over months, they have to survive only for six more weeks. Waiting would have been cowardly, but cowards tend to survive.

Why make trillions when we can make billions?

Instead, Mr Sunak has been bold to the point of foolhardy. He has opted for an Austin Powers strategy. During a game of blackjack, the international man of mystery is playing against a man who, unbeknownst to Mr Powers, has x-ray vision. The villain “gambles” on 17, gets a 4 and wins. “I like to live dangerously,” he gloats to Mr Powers. Next, Mr Powers is dealt a five. “I’ll stay,” says Mr Powers. “I also like to live dangerously.”

The Conservatives require a miracle to stay in office. Mr Sunak’s own actions, from his time as chancellor to his tenure as prime minister right through to the decision-making process that leads to a sodden man making an inaudible speech, make that miracle less likely. Perhaps the prime minister has a secret strategy. Perhaps he is simply a gambler. Perhaps he is just bad at politics. On July 4th, he will find out.

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