“Events, dear boy, events” said Harold Macmillan musing on the main things that influence politics. He was surely right. It’s a question of what in business is often referred to as the difference between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the long term – tactics happen to steer towards that long term goal but also, and crucially, to fight fires. The “events”.
There ought to be more to politics than fire-fighting and there is certainly at times, plenty of rhetoric about what sort of nation Britain should be. For the last year, the Boris Johnson premiership after his successful General Election, we know what he wants us not to be (European) but very little about what he actually wants us to be instead. “Independent” is the populist buzz word. Sadly, except at the most abstract level, this means nothing in a very interdependent world.
Rishi Sunak was an active campaigner for “Leave” before he held any office. Like many of his Asian heritage compatriots (Patel, Javid and the rest) this was curious and unexplained but opposition to immigration, wrapped unconvincingly in the veneer of “Sovereignty” , lay at the heart of it. Sunak confirmed this in a strong anti-immigration speech back in 2016. The immigration he was primarily opposed to, of course, was that from Europe not South Asia.
Sunak is certainly bright but his intelligence is narrowly applied. There are few if any signs of any real social intelligence – that elusive quality that augments smartness with compassion. When you take Sunak out of his comfort zone he looks uncomfortable. And good though he may be on matters Financial (you don’t make a personal fortune in Goldman Sachs without knowing how many beans make five) in other policy areas he is at best an unknown quantity.
Whatever Europe trade deal emerges shortly we know for sure that it will be less advantageous to Britain than the status quo. And that the majority of our trade with the rest of the world will be uncovered by any formal deals for a long time. It is in these unpromising circumstances that we will have to manage the worst national financial balance sheet and P&L in modern times. Compounded by the unprecedented hit our economy will take from Brexit.
The pandemic is an unprecedented “event” and even the wily Macmillan would have struggled to manage it. In such times we need friends. Gordon Brown’s success in managing the “event” of the global financial crisis during his premiership was based on international cooperation in which he took a leading role. Perhaps the last time Britain was global before the infection of Brexit changed us for ever.
In a normal world the politically inexperienced Rishi Sunak might be a junior minister making his way – not our least worst choice to be Prime Minister when Boris Johnson follows his henchmen out of Number 10. Cometh the hour cometh the man possibly, but don’t hold your breath. What is certain is that he will be preoccupied with “events” and with putting out the post-Johnson fires that will be raging. He’ll have no time for strategy and not just that – his tactical options will be severely limited by the calamitous limiting factor of Brexit. In language Sunak will understand be very bearish about Britain for a very long time.