3 November 2022


The brickbats.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

As far as I’m aware, Mr Sunak has never sat in a trench and been bombarded by artillery, but at the moment he must be getting a taste of the political equivalent. The markets have greeted his appointment with relief but there are plenty of brickbats coming his way, some sensible and some not.

First of course there is the question of legitimacy. It was always said of Charles VII of France that the fact that Joan of Arc recognised him among his courtiers at Chinon was a relief because it confirmed his legitimacy, something which might fairly have been doubted in view of the rather racy reputation of his mother Isabelle of Bavaria. The doubts about Mr Sunak’s legitimacy are rather different. His parents are perfectly respectable so there is no doubt about heredity. No, it is his mandate which is the problem and the fact that any serious attempt to get the national show back on the road will inevitably mean some of his measures cutting across things the Tory party said or promised in its last election campaign. Well, yes, so they will and the dimmer members of the opposition will go on about it like a cracked record but are they right to do so? Indeed, it is in their interest?

Look at the country now. Vulnerable people are suffering badly and even those who are normally prosperous are feeling the pinch. This has been partly caused by the Conservatives and partly by the international situation in shares which can be disputed. However that may be, everyone, or almost everyone, wants to see the current economic problems fixed or at least mitigated to the extent that that is possible. We now have a leader who, whether rightly or wrongly, believes he has the right policies and who the markets seem to trust to the extent that they have reduced the prohibitive cost of government borrowing. A full economic statement is expected on 17th November. If it is coherent and well-constructed it will set a viable path which will hopefully go some way to reducing the suffering of the public. How could it possibly make sense to throw everything back into chaos with a general election now? Nobody could really think that more uncertainty would help and those who call for it will mark their political cards as people who looked for advantage at a time of national crisis. For the moment opposition leaders would do well to eschew this route and perhaps show themselves as better and more patriotic than the Tories who so recently played politics as Rome burned.

Then come at it another way. Should Sunak feel constrained by election promises to avoid changes which he sees as being in the national interest? Of course he shouldn’t. The current circumstances were quite unforeseen at the time of the last election and different circumstances require different measures. John Maynard Keynes is often credited with saying:

 “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” 

and here the facts have changed with a vengeance. Of course Sunak must do what is needed and if the ground is left littered with Tory sacred cows, I am sure that he as a Hindu will regret it but that will not mean his changes in policy were wrong.

So let’s try some other brickbats, his personal wealth for example. One of the more nauseating techniques of the media is to find someone who is affected by a policy, a vulnerable person who is under economic pressure, for example, and to treat them as experts on that policy because of the suffering they are going through. Just think about it for a moment. Does the fact that some worthy but uneducated citizen is reduced to using the food bank make him an expert on economics? Of course it doesn’t, any more than children are experts on what they should learn or dogs are experts on the best form of rabies injection. I am not of course saying that those who work in an area do not have views worth listening to, that you should not listen to doctors when reforming the NHS or to social workers when designing benefits, but rather that being in a position where you are effected by a policy is not itself a qualification for setting it.

Now turn the argument about. Does the fact that you happen to be so wealthy that you do not suffer from the effects of particular policies disqualify you from setting them? Of course it doesn’t and Mr Sunak’s wealth does not in any way disqualify him from trying to help the most vulnerable if it is indeed the case, and I expect it is, that that is what he genuinely wishes to do.

Another brickbat is his appointment of the Home Secretary. Suella Braverman is a contentious figure and many have been the articles questioning her fitness for her position. It may be that they are right and it is certainly likely that her appointment was designed to extend Mr Sunak’s big tent to the right so that all parts of his party would feel represented. That is a judgement call and a difficult one. His attempts to lead the country out of its problems will not work unless he takes his party with him and if the cost of that is including Ms Braverman, well, perhaps he just has to pay it.

Finally there is climate change. Clearly the government were right not to allow the new king to express opinions at COP27. It is true that the Royal views on the topic of the environment are in line with those of the government and most of the people. But then it is not up to the King to express views. What happens if something changes and he finds himself at odds with Parliament? Does he stay silent indicating disagreement or does he take an independent line? The King’s job involves not getting into this position and the government’s advice to restrict himself to giving a party for attendees is clearly sensible. Still, the conference is enormously important and those throwing the brickbats said that Mr Sunak should go himself. If you step back for a moment that was plainly right. The more pressure we can exert to combat climate change the better but to someone who is basically firefighting the perspective may well have looked different. Sunak can only devote himself to so much at a time and although climate change is a far more important topic than UK interest rates, it is the latter which have to be fixed on 2nd November. You can see why his initial reaction was the wrong one.

I have no doubt that readers will be able to think of other brickbats which can be thrown, some with justice and some without, but as a political matter the crucial question is one of momentum. Produce a good agenda on the 17th and follow it forward and the brickbats will bounce off. Hesitate or half do the job and the result will be very different. Good luck, Mr Sunak.

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