In the land of the blind the one eyed man is King. It is generally acknowledged that this is the least talented Cabinet in living memory. Rishi Sunak is the exception. Labour cannot attack him for what he is doing but they most certainly can for what he believes. From supporting Brexit in 2016 to his extreme free market personal ideology he was potentially the most economically Right Wing Chancellor of modern times. We are firmly in “Tax Payers Alliance” territory here.
Mr Sunak’s brief political career to date has been mainly about establishing his credentials in the Conservative Party. He did this at a time when the Party handed itself over to its Hard Right – and as it happens that’s where Sunak sits. I would not accuse him of opportunism. I don’t think that he has spouted a libertarian, free-market hard neoliberal position to secure a personal political advantage. I think he really believes it. But as Harold Wilson said “Campaign from the Left, govern from the Centre”.
I remember when Ted Heath came to power in 1970 on a very pro Business and economically non-interventionist manifesto. (That was ten years before Sunak’s birth so he won’t remember it !). Within a year he was knocked off that free market pedestal by what Harold McMillan called “events”. Suddenly Ted, like Harold before him, had to “govern from the centre”.
In February this year (pre Covid) Hard Right Tory economic veteran, and uber-Eurosceptic John Redwood advised Chancellor Sunak that “We need a bigger and more prosperous private sector, which requires lower tax rates and a holiday from yet more prescriptive regulation.” I doubt that at the time Sunak would have disagreed. You don’t have a successful career in Goldman Sachs if you’re a wishy-washy interventionist “Tax the rich” liberal.
Then came Rishi’s “events” which changed him from being a dedicated follower of the Redwood faction into the most interventionist and free-spending Chancellor of the Exchequer of modern times. Not his fault, of course, but it must have hurt. This wasn’t “Government from the Centre”. It was Government from the Praesidium.
Before the referendum Sunak endeared himself to the hard core Eurosceptics by saying “It can’t be right that unelected officials in Brussels have more say over who can come into our country than you.” This may seem a curiously anti immigration position for a British Asian to take, but it went down well in Yorkshire where he is an MP. And Sunak’s fellow British Asian Home Secretary Priti Patel, could have used the same words – and probably did.
If, as seems increasingly likely, Rishi Sunak becomes Prime Minister within a few months he will have to manage not just the calamitous economic and business challenges of the Pandemic but of Brexit as well. The combination of these events, and of dealing with them, will bring unprecedented social consequences. It is possible that the worst effects of Brexit on trade (etc) can be ameliorated by a “deal” with the EU27. The earlier Sunak takes over from the inadequate Boris Johnson the better in this regard – especially if he rapidly dispenses with Johnson’s puppeteer Dominic Cummings. But even a deal-brokered Brexit will not be a walk in the park with an ailing economy totally reliant on Government support and spending.
So will Prime Minister Sunak be forced to “govern from the Centre” – when the current alternative is to govern from the hard-interventionist Left he’d probably settle for that. The supreme irony of where we are is that the most committed anti EU Conservatives (of which Sunak was one) took this position from a hard non-interventionist and free enterprise perspective. For this Parliament not only is that not going to happen but Britain will not enjoy the benefits of membership of the most successful single market and customs union in the world either.
Rishi Sunak may morph into a pragmatist and cleverly find an accommodation with the EU. The ideologues won’t like that – they’d probably quite welcome the riots in the streets which could be a consequence of Britain’s self-evident ungovernability. Especially if they are viewing them from their tax exile home or from their Chateaux in Provence.