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Tory Funeral Buildup


The Tories are over. Whether you ask voters or pollsters, or even party apparatchiks, it’s not a question of if but when.

Keir Starmer, before filming an episode of The Sun's Never Mind The Ballots. London, 21 March .

Everyone agrees, and everything bears the death spiral out. The question is what the party might still do to stay in power.

Josh White, on the crisis of the Conservatives, and why Rishi Sunak is profoundly unsuited to his role.

No life preservers for this oligarch. If it weren’t so tragic, it’d be funny.

That’s the state of UK politics for you.

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Hi, I’m Josh White and you’re listening to Left to Burn, the podcast of The Battleground.

This is my pre-election diary. Welcome to episode three.

A lot has happened in the last month or so. We’re most definitely in the end times of this Tory era. King of polling John Curtice just gave Labour a 99% chance of winning the next election.

What more can be said? It looks like we’re sleepwalking into a game of chicken between Tory rebels looking to oust Sunak and the leadership of the Tory Party threatening to call an early election if that challenge comes to pass.

But either way it’s too late for anyone to save the Tory Party from oblivion. It’s worth asking what Sunak could have done to avoid this situation. It wasn’t inevitable. It wasn’t preordained.

So if we turn back to October 2022 when Sunak took over from Liz Truss, what we find is Sunak inherited the wreckage of a dozen years of Tory misrule – which he had partly helped mastermind as chancellor to Boris Johnson.

His time in Bojoland should have taught him a thing or two about politics, especially the advantages of short-term risk-taking for the sake of looking decisive. I think Sunak’s first act as PM should have been to hatch a plan with Jeremy Hunt.

The plan should’ve been to revoke the independence of the Bank of England and immediately bring down interest rates. This would have helped alleviate a lot of the financial pressure on a key constituency for his party, namely people with mortgages, landlords and new buyers.

Sunak would have had to repudiate the Bank of England’s narrative about inflation. He would have had to reject the talk of using interest rates to combat energy-driven inflation as the nonsense that it was.

But he wasn’t willing to play this kind of political game. The fact is that the inflation crisis that the UK has faced – along with most of the West and especially Europe – has been down to the fallout for supply chains from the pandemic and the energy crisis that partly results from the pandemic, but also the Ukraine war.

Bringing down interest rates would have helped stabilise the falling fortunes of the party and helped convince voters that Sunak was the change they were hoping for. The problem is that the damage was already severe from the Truss budget financial shock.

People with pension holdings, especially the very well-off, had lost a lot of money in some cases. And that’s hard to forgive and forget. Likewise, many voters, if not most voters, were feeling the strain of the cost-of-living crisis, especially old-age pensioners (again, a key constituency of the Tory party).

These two factors – the fallout for pensions and the cost-of-living crisis – coupled with high interest rates, was absolutely devastating for Sunak’s chances. He could’ve pulled several surprises out of the bag, but the limits of his politics prevented this.

His narrow technocratic style and his penchant for fiscal conservatism and gradual economic reformism is a tough sell for a disaffected electorate, especially after a dozen years of Tory government. But the opportunities were real.

The UK government could have taken over many of the energy companies that were going bust during the energy crisis, for example. Consolidating them into a new state energy company would have been a popular move with most voters.

It could have even been used to bring down the cost of energy. But this would have been very costly and Sunak would have had to have found the money somehow, probably by raising taxes and that would be politically unpopular.

Sunak’s base wants strong public services and low taxes. This is fantasy politics. Just as many right-wingers think they can deal with low birth rates and close the borders, the means and the ends are nowhere near each. It’s magical thinking. It’s wish fulfilment. It’s not serious.

But it’s not just a matter of expectations. It’s also about Sunak’s own narrow, cautious approach to electoralism. Most of his base would cry foul at the prospect of higher taxes to pay for such a move even though most of them would support some kind of re-nationalisation of utilities.

The same is true when it comes to the railways or even water right now. There is talk of Thames Water going insolvent. The government could step in, take over the company in a bold, popular move, and begin reforming the water industry.

This would require massive costs and, yes, tax increases. And god forbid we have tax increases. The very rich wanted the tax cuts that Liz Truss had pledged, but not in the way she had pledged them—especially not without the appropriate ideological justifications regarding growth and deficit reduction.

Sunak himself is no less unrealistic. He wants the political rewards of populism without its harsh economics. He wants to benefit from the kind of nationalism that Boris Johnson inflamed constantly. But he doesn’t want to take the risks that this kind of politics comes with.

At the same time, Sunak is tied to unworkable immigration policies – especially the Rwanda plan, which was probably never viable. The Home Office has generally been mismanaging immigration, perhaps in the hope of stirring up anti-migrant feeling in the country, which the Tories could then use to (their) advantage in an election campaign.

The problem is that this has drawn a great deal of attention to the very real failures of policy that they are responsible for. Sunak offers no real solutions. What have they got besides the Rwanda plan?

There’s been talk of boosting the voluntary repatriation scheme, paying people to leave the country – paying asylum seekers to “go home”. This is reminiscent of BNP policy from 15 years ago when Nick Griffin was talking about paying Britons of colour up to £50,000 to “go back to where they came from”.

This is where we are. The fact that it’s come to this says a lot about the state of the debate on immigration in this country. It’s hard to think of any way Sunak could have made a meaningful change.

The conditions in the economy meant that some sort of opening to an influx of migrants was hard to prevent for any government. The right-wing press has been losing its mind over the surge in student VISAs.

But, if you create a situation where higher education is supposed to be funded by tuition fees, then the universities are going to need people who will pay the highest fees possible. And those people happen to be foreigners. This was completely avoidable.

If they didn’t have students coming from abroad to pay those tuition fees, the Tories would have to find other ways to fill the funding gap. Or they would most likely just allow universities to fall apart or even go under.

Meanwhile, the UK has had to take in a vast number of people from Ukraine, Hong Kong and Afghanistan. These are countries to which the UK has some degree of responsibility for historical reasons or because of policy with regard to wars waged in these places, especially Afghanistan.

In fact, it’s arguable that we should have been doing far more for the Afghans than we have been. By contrast, it was Boris Johnson who made a pledge to allow Hong Kongers to come to the UK in response to Chinese efforts to absorb Hong Kong as a political entity and bring about the end of the compromise that has been in place since 1997.

On every front, we find that Sunak is completely indecisive, absent, prone to cheap PR manoeuvring and constant whittling on about his plan, which doesn’t seem to have any kind of substance to it beyond arbitrary pledges he made and probably shouldn’t have.

So even though there were options in 2022 and 2023 such as bringing down interest rates and, even to some extent, making tax pledges where Liz Truss hadn’t – such as reforming inheritance tax, which would have definitely built up some support among the rich for his government.

The Sunak regime, if we might call it that, would have still lacked legitimacy and lacked any kind of populist energy on the cultural front and on immigration. And yet, that’s exactly where Sunak wants to be. He wants to bring about some kind of synthesis between the technocratic liberal centrism of David Cameron and the national populism of Boris Johnson.

He can’t do it. He’s just not the kind of professional politician or the man of instinct to pull off such a feat. He isn’t Boris Johnson and he isn’t David Cameron. And he certainly isn’t a mixture of either. He is an unfortunate political non-entity and he will most likely go down in history as such.

So here we are, drifting towards an almost inevitable Labour government led by Keir Starmer. The only possibility of amusement under the Sunak government is that there will be some sort of leadership challenge in the next month or two because of the local elections, which will most likely be disastrous for the Tories.

It looks like any such attempt to oust Sunak would probably fail right now. However, Sunak would be seriously wounded and left even more precarious and paralytic than he already he is. The prime minister would be mortally wounded, as the pundits like to say.

He would lack the basic support of his party and his cabinet perhaps. This would raise the chances of an early election potentially, but it all depends on Sunak’s stamina and will power.

Will he be more like Theresa May and cling on for dear life for as long as possible? Or will he take the easy route as Boris Johnson did? It seems like every prime minister we’ve had for the last 15 years has been the sort of man who has never been put to the test, and when he is finally put to the test, we find out that they aren’t particularly tough or strong-willed.

This was true of David Cameron, his great challenge and test was Brexit. This was true of Theresa May, and her great challenge was partly Brexit, but also Jeremy Corbyn.

Boris Johnson shared these dual challenges but managed to overcome them and make them his own. But, again, he was thwarted and brought down by COVID and his own inability and his own compulsive behaviour.

I’d like to say something profound about Liz Truss, but the truth is the only challenge she faced was herself and a lettuce.

Sunak now faces the multitude of challenges of the last fourteen years – the full reckoning of the public, the full reckoning that the Tories have managed to bring upon themselves. And, on that note, The Battleground will be preparing for the new era.

Thank you for listening. This was Left To Burn.

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Photograph courtesy of Keir Starmer. Published under a Creative Commons license.