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Rishi Sunak is Breaking the Triple Tory Habit of Failure – Adrian Wooldridge/Bloomberg

Britain has something that it hasn’t had for years — a competent prime minister. As long as he doesn’t implode.

UK PM Rishi Sunak (Liam McBurney/AFP)

By Adrian Wooldridge

Britain has had three failed prime ministers in a row. Theresa May was a senior civil servant rather than a politician. Boris Johnson was a brilliant campaigner but a lousy chief executive. As for Liz Truss, the less said the better.

For a while, it looked as if Rishi Sunak might be the frightful fourth: too rich for an out-at-the-elbows country and too slick for a people who like to imagine their leaders in taverns named The Dog and Duck. His “five priorities” came across as boring and technocratic — the sort of thing that Goldman Sachs Group Inc. managers send to their subordinates. He idiotically failed to meet the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis arguably his closest soulmate in the European Union — when he was in Britain. Johnson’s supporters were itching for a fight. Even Truss briefly reemerged from her cave to deliver a lecture on growth.

The last few weeks have changed all that. Sunak has made more progress on solving the Northern Ireland Protocol puzzle — the gremlin in the Brexit works — than any of his predecessors. By standing up to Nicola Sturgeon’s Gender Recognition Act, he also helped to hasten her demise, throwing Scottish nationalism into turmoil (though it must be added that she would have imploded without his help).

Sunak hopes to use the momentum from these two triumphs to address a succession of other issues. The most urgent: lengthening waiting lists at the beleaguered National Health System, deteriorating public services, the epidemic of strikes and the problem of “small boats” — refugees who try to make it to Britain in tiny vessels, often with tragic consequences.

The Windsor Framework that’s been proposed to untangle the Protocol deserves to be celebrated. It is a clever piece of bargaining that solves lots of practical problems on the ground in Northern Ireland and also provides Britain with more benefits than most critics had expected. It also represents a change in attitude toward the EU from the very highest reaches of Brexitland.

Some Brexiteers think the best way to deal with the EU is to rant and rage at it. That is more a symptom of mental disorder than a strategy for government. Others try to ignore it and focus on the deep blue yonder. Sunak’s Brexit credentials are as good a anyone’s — he supported the idea when Johnson was still dithering — but he recognizes that we need to have the best relationship as possible with our nearest neighbor and biggest trading partner.

And despite his Brexiteer soul, the prime minister has all the right personal qualities — smart suits, a polite manner and a love of technocratic details — to smooth over relations with EU bureaucrats. Better relations might produce all sorts of quick benefits such as more cooperation with France over small boats and the end of “punishment queues” at airports and border crossings whereby one EU passport officer processes a long line of non-EU citizens.

The EU and Scotland are headline grabbers. But Sunak the Sensible is also making progress in improving efficiency. Johnson left the engine room of government in chaos, with bits scattered all over the place, steam leaking everywhere, and vomit on the floor from drunken parties. Sunak is cleaning things up and slowly putting it back in order.

He brought a close-knit group of advisers with him from the Treasury and is progressively adding to it. (The fact that the quality of his inner circle is significantly higher, on average, than the Cabinet itself may be bad for the country but is not necessarily bad for the prime minister.) He is also herding government workers back into the office, on the grounds that working from home is no way to serve the public, let alone run a dynamic government.

Truss exploded Britain’s credibility on global markets and put the spotlight on long-term weaknesses. Sunak has better relations with his chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, than any British prime minister since David Cameron (who worked with George Osborne). Sunak and Hunt are rightly focusing on restoring market confidence in Britain, particularly on bringing down inflation, even if it means alienating public-sector workers.

The biggest problem for Conservative prime ministers for the past few years has been nothing other than the Conservative Party itself. May did perpetual battle with the majority in her party in the name of sensible policies and ended up being destroyed by it. Johnson and Truss gave in to that majority and ended up being destroyed in different ways — Johnson by mouthing windy slogans without achieving anything and Truss by delivering a fantasy budget (lower taxes and more spending) that exploded on contact with reality.

The great hope for Sunak is that he has established a more sensible relationship with his party than his three predecessors. So far, the Windsor Framework has gone down better with the awkward squad than Tory-watchers had expected.  Stalwarts of the European Research Group — the Tories’ Brexit nerve center — such as David Davis and Mark Francois have given it a cautious welcome.

Johnson has equivocated, telling a conference on “global soft power” that he would find it “very difficult to vote for the deal” but not absolutely ruling it out. (In a show of hands at the conference, almost nobody raised theirs when asked if Brexit was a good idea.) Outspoken skeptics such as Jacob Rees-Mogg run the risk of being seen by their own party in the same way that they are perceived by the rest of the country: ridiculous wreckers. 

All this, of course, may also be a sign that the party’s greatest virtue — its appetite for power — is beginning to reassert itself in more pragmatic rather than ideological ways as the 2024 general election gets nearer.

The Tory capacity for renewal may also be kicking in as well. On Feb. 28, the think tank Onward launched a new research program, on the future of conservatism. As part of it, Michael Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, makes a case for a more communitarian version of conservatism and also delivers a spirited demolition of “wokeness,” an issue that, if handled carefully, has the potential to unite the conservative tribes and divide the Labour ones.

Meanwhile, the excellent (if ineptly titled) right-of-center webzine Unherd recently opened a club-cum-coffee shop in Westminster, providing a hub for debate, socializing and, no doubt, plotting. Though Keir Starmer’s Labour Party may be 20 points ahead in the polls, it is certainly not dominating the intellectual debate in the way, say, Tony Blair did in the 1990s, let alone laying the foundations for a sea change in policy thinking.

Sunak may yet prove to be a souffle. The Labour Party is relentless in its determination to frame him as an out-of-touch multimillionaire. Trust in the government is so low that people are not inclined to give him credit for success. The Tory right may yet flame into rebellion. Sunak has so many problems on his hands that he’s not devoting enough time to the biggest problem of all — productivity. Regular people would welcome a Starmer government just so that they don’t have to hear the words “Sir Iain Duncan Smith says,” “Sir John Redwood complains” or statements from senior Tory spokesmen ever again.

For the time being at least, it looks as if Britain has a government that can deliver government and a prime minister who is worthy of the office.


Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Bloomberg Opinion, on March 3, 2023. All comments posted and published on EnergiesNet.com, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of EnergiesNet.com or Petroleumworld.

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