When Rishi Sunak was first elected as the MP for safe-seat of Richmond in 2015, the political landscape was in a very different state. The Tories were riding high; David Cameron had just been re-elected and the Brexit referendum lay ahead. The then-prime minister spoke openly of his plan to retire quietly at the end of a full second term.
Of course, the big-picture story from the last six years of British politics is that things did not play out how Cameron hoped or expected.
Sunak backed Brexit early, at a time when most young Tory MPs hoping for a government job were loyally arguing the case to remain in the EU. For Cameron, Sunak’s support for the Leave campaign was an early signal that he was beginning to lose the argument among Conservatives. According to reports at the time, Cameron said privately, “If we’ve lost Rishi, we’ve lost the future of the party”.
Sunak was still much too junior to have a major impact on the campaign, but this was a strong statement of intent from the young MP. And the gamble would ultimately pay off handsomely.
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His first cabinet job as Johnson’s chief secretary to the treasury owed much to the patronage of the Vote Leave gang. And in government, Sunak became a seasoned preacher of the Johnsonian creed, even standing in for the prime minister for two national TV debates during the 2019 election campaign.
This version of Sunak was ideologically uncomplicated: he was a small-state, tax-cutting eurosceptic.
Yet Sunak was carried into 10 Downing Street on Monday following a wave of support from the centre and left of his parliamentary party. Many of his most prominent cabinet allies, including Jeremy Hunt, Mel Stride, Robert Jenrick, Andrew Mitchell and Oliver Dowden, were remain supporters and sit on the One Nation wing of the party.
Sunak has even begun playing into the tropes of this particular political clique. Since Monday, he has stated repeatedly that he will govern as a “compassionate Conservative”, adding in his first speech as prime minister: “you saw me during Covid, doing everything I could, to protect people and businesses, with schemes like furlough”.
Perhaps too much has been made of Sunak’s palatable, metropolitan demeanor — but this is, of course, the point. “Brand Rishi” was always about flaunting a camera-friendly, soft Cameroon outer-shell.
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That Sunak has skillfully navigated the shifting dynamics of Conservative factional politics over last six years shows a considerable amount of tactical acumen. But our new prime minister’s unconventional journey to the top of the greasy pole begs an important question: what is Rishi Sunak’s political identity?
Today, Sunak is a Brexiteer viewed with suspicion by Brexiteers; an instinctive tax-cutter tasked with fixing the fiscal trauma caused by Truss’ tax-cutting; and a “compassionate Conservative” preparing an extensive programme of spending cuts.
On Tuesday, as his new cabinet appointees walked out of 10 Downing Street, the ideological picture became no clearer.
For a politician who has pitched himself as the antidote to Trussonomics, many were surprised to see Liz Truss’ two original picks for the great offices of state stay in post.
Similarly, the inclusion of Andrew Mitchell, a prominent supporter of lifting aid spending from 0.5 per cent of GDP to 0.7 per cent is a curious choice for a supposed fiscal hawk. As is the retention of Ben Wallace, whose redline on defence spending looks destined to be crossed at some point.
Reshuffles are fraught with danger for a newly minted PM and, on this occasion, Sunak appeared to choose the path of least resistance. The decision to prioritise party management over ideological purity will nonetheless have significant policy implications down the line — and it leaves us in the dark once more on Sunak’s own political positioning.
When it comes to the hot-button issue of fracking, Sunak has made the tactical decision to reemphasise the importance of the 2019 election manifesto. This is in many senses a savvy tactical choice; after a hedonistic summer spent flirting with Trussonomics, Sunak has concluded that the party must rebuild the successful pre-pandemic electoral coalition.
But a rhetorical reliance on the 2019 manifesto may ultimately create more problems than it solves.
On an ideological level, the 2019 election manifesto was not Sunak’s vision. The document’s emphasis on levelling up, “getting Brexit done” and environmental concerns underline it as a specifically Johnsonian tract. And Sunak’s political appeal is manifestly not the same as Johnson’s.
Moreover, while in government, Sunak was notably much more hawkish on the economy than Johnson. In his July 2022r esignation letter, Sunak stated that their approach to economic policy was “fundamentally too different”. After all, it was the then-chancellor who was behind the manifesto-breaking increase in National Insurance contributions.
Always the loudest voice in favour of fiscal restraint, Sunak later told The Telegraph: “I just don’t think it’s right to rack up bills on the country’s credit card”. He can now hardly be seen to deliver the Conservative party’s high-spending, levelling-up-heavy election manifesto.
The decision to reemphasise the 2019 election manifesto is above all a communications strategy aimed at reconnecting the parliamentary party to the source of its electoral mandate — a rhetorical gambit designed to shake-off Labour’s calls for a general election. But the strategy has the unintended consequence of further muddying the waters around Sunak’s own political identity.
Sunak was elected Conservative leader on a technocratic ticket — one significantly bolstered by Truss’ careering, dogma-heavy premiership. But governing as a technocrat, just like governing as an ideologue, is no easy feat.
Sunak’s obfuscation around political direction may buy some ideological space for policy flexibility, but in time it may serve only to enforce his image as an arch Tory Wet. That the technocrat-in-chief is already viewed with suspicion in certain corners of the Conservative party is plain.
However, right now, there appears little left for aggrieved parliamentarians to do other than make noise. But noise they can and will make. If Sunak’s manifesto-reliant comms strategy continues, surely it is just a matter of time before Johnson resurfaces on the backbenches to reclaim his policy platform and condemn his erstwhile chancellor for sacrificing his vision on the altar of fiscal restraint.
Whatever the case, Sunak will likely continue to pivot between ideological perspectives, parroting the values of One Nation conservatives on some occasions, and throwing red meat to his party’s right flank on others.
But come a general election, Sunak will need to make a better attempt at defining his own political identity. Ultimately, fiscal technocracy may work in the Treasury, but on the doorstep, pragmatism will prove no recipe for Conservative revival.