27 October 2022


Time to bind in.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

As Sunak coasted to victory, two interrelated comments made in the course of the leadership campaign threw an odd light on British politics. The first was made by Liz Truss who, following her resignation, said to Downing Street staff: “at least I’ve been PM”. What does that mean? Could she really regard becoming PM as a worthwhile achievement in itself rather than an opportunity to provide useful and perhaps even distinguished services to the public? Never mind the inflationary mini budget, never mind the loss of credibility in the markets which will ruin many borrowers, these count for nothing. Liz Truss has been Prime Minister and even though she has let everybody down she regards that as an achievement and not something of which she should be ashamed. How shallow is it possible to be?

Go now to the second comment, this time a question by Laura Kuenssberg, the distinguished political journalist, who asked why anyone would want to become Prime Minister at the moment. The answer to that depends on what you regard as the purpose of political office; if you take Liz Truss’s approach it is a perfectly sensible question. Take the value of the office in terms of the benefits it confers on the holder – status, glory, salary, the privilege of a weekly audience with the King, that sort of thing – and a balance can easily be struck between these ‘benefits’ and the difficulties and strains which the office entails and the effective termination of a career if the incumbent makes a mess of it. At the moment that balance would look pretty grim and that is presumably what Laura had in mind. Still, that is to approach the question from entirely the wrong direction.

Back in the 1970s the arches behind King’s Cross station were inhabited by very odd people. Pimps, drug dealers and pickpockets lurked in the doorways and it was generally regarded as rather an unhealthy place for young city professionals to take a stroll. That is why I was sorry when my then girlfriend’s car broke down in one of the dingiest streets of all. It was a bad moment. People in dark overcoats were beginning to peer at us and in those days, before the advent of mobile phones, there was no way of summoning a taxi. There was no choice; I had to get out and push. It was a heavy little car and I got little response from it. Then, after a few minutes, it got lighter because a number of the young men in dark overcoats had left their shadowy stations and were pushing too. I have no idea who they were. Ne’er-do-wells of one sort or another, I think, but however that be, they put their shoulders to the job in hand and when we failed to start the car one of them kindly gave us a lift to my house in Highbury. Why, you might ask, did they do it? It certainly wasn’t for any sort of gain nor did they seem like the sort of chaps who were trying to score points with the Almighty. No, they did it for the simple reason that something needed doing and they could help. That was enough and for a moment they were not pimps, drug dealers or pickpockets but people using their physical strength to help with a task to which it was suited. It was the same generous instinct which you encounter when you are lost and ask directions or when you crash your mobility scooter and need help righting it. People always help when they can and that includes good people and bad people, rich people and poor people, old people and young people. People who feel they can fix something that needs fixing will generally take the trouble to do it.

Now put this instinct into a political context. Most politicians, and no doubt the new Prime Minister is one of them, have considerable confidence in their own abilities. They see the country in a terrible mess and believe that they can make a real contribution to sorting it out. Of course the better ones will try to step into the breach and will not be put off by the fact that it is probably a poor move in career terms. That is your answer, Ms Kuenssberg.

Rishi Sunak has clearly not come forward as Prime Minister for the money; nor as some of my dippier left-wing friends will suggest so that he can help his friends. No doubt he saw Truss’s resignation as rather a risky opportunity to forward his political career but surely he must also be driven by that instinct to fix things. So before we whinge on about how flawed the process is and how it would be better to have a general election, how he is too rich to lead the country or how inappropriate it is to have a Prime Minister who is a Hindu, we should recognise that he has had the courage to step into the breach and has probably done so for the right reasons. It is too early to say whether he will be a good prime minister or a bad one, whether it is true as one Tory backbencher said that he is a fine administrator but a bad campaigner (curiously this was said as a criticism not as a reason for supporting him) or whether he can sort out the markets and set Britain on a forward course, but all of us from whatever political party should wish him well in his endeavours and bind in behind him. That is what the country needs now.

Cover page image: Chris McAndrew / wikimedia / creative commons

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