2 November 2023
Smoothing the way
By John Watson
It really isn’t Sunak’s fault. He is clearly intelligent, plainly honest and decent, diligent in his approach to detail and firm in his views. Agree with him or not, he isn’t there for the money but rather out of an ambition to make his contribution to a more successful and prosperous Britain. So what is not to like? A good man trying to do a good job and, yet, as the recent by-election results have shown, the country will have none of It. Why not? Is there some personal attribute we have overlooked? A little too Indian perhaps? No doubt there is a bit of that but not much, I think. After all the electors of Richmond have never had a problem with him and Richmond falls well outside the M25. (No, Editor, it is the Richmond in Yorkshire we are talking about). Well then, too rich? I don’t think the public are particularly driven by envy but what about the argument that a rich person cannot understand the problems of the poor because he does not experience them personally? By that logic, of course, the Minister of Health should be chosen from the sick, with a special division for the Ministry of mental health. The Minister of Defence should always have a military background and the Minister for Prisons a criminal record. The Home Secretary should have drifted about in a small boat in tumultuous seas. No, let’s leave that piffle to those who believe in votes for dogs and cats and move on.
The problem with Sunak is not a personal one but one of baggage. That isn’t necessarily personal baggage, although some will hold his Brexiteer past against him, but baggage attaching to his party. Four unsuccessful prime ministers in a row will naturally tar the prospects of their successor, particularly when some of them still have vocal support in the party and an influence which Sunak governments will not be able to ignore. Enough of them, says the electorate, and out into the wilderness they will surely go; then there will be a bloodletting and a blamestorming as the nutters run riot, leaving the Conservatives with no electoral prospects for the next 10 years.
Now Sunak would not admit this. It is his duty to fight the next election for the Tories and I am sure he will do it bravely. Nevertheless, he is not a fool and must realise that whatever he and his relatively sane top team may do, however hard they may work, however many hands they may shake, this is by far the most likely outcome. Faced with that, what is his duty to the nation?
If we were in the US, of course, the answer would be easy. Make things as difficult as possible for the incoming administration, would say the nutters. Who cares about the public interest? There is a political point to be gained. And with that they would, spitting with venom, set up as many obstacles as possible to prevent the new government carrying out the program which the public voted for.
But we are not in the US and so there is a little space for sense and I’m sure that Mr Sunak will appreciate that if 10 years of Labour rule is really likely, the best thing he can do for the country is to keep an eye on easing the potential transfer of authority. That doesn’t mean that he should help set the stage for things he is vehemently against. He should certainly not lay the groundwork for a reversal of his position on Gaza, for example; but on those many areas of policy which are practical rather than high principle he should not consciously mess things up for them and indeed should occasionally talk informally to his opposite number.
Take HS 2 for example where a long held cross party consensus has been upset on grounds of cost. There will be further debate on northern infrastructure and final decisions will probably be made by a Labour government. It makes no sense then to sell off land which has been bought for the northern leg until those decisions have finally been made and yet some people are calling for this either out of spite or to limit the flexibility of the next administration. Such calls should be determinedly resisted.
When the Romans sacked Carthage they sowed its fields with salt to make them infertile and to prevent the city being rebuilt. Perhaps that was wise in the circumstances and it was certainly effective; but the strategy has no place in the broadly consensual context of British politics. Here Mr Sunak has a duty to the people, and in theory to the King, to do his best for the country and its prosperity. Where that means smoothing the path for an administration to which he is opposed that is what he must do. Being the honest man he is, I am sure he will do it too.