If Liz Truss’s mantra was “move fast and break things”, then Rishi Sunak’s is “move slow and leave things where they are, and pray no one will notice”. It has been exactly three weeks since he was sent into Downing Street on a wave of relief and hope. But it has taken only those three weeks to expose Sunak as yet another underqualified and overpromoted prime minister. There is now no doubt that he does not have the mandate, the appetite or the nerve to deliver what was expected of him.
A brief look at his performance so far shows a failure to meet the goals set for him. A break with the volatile right of the party, who left a crater in the economy? Instead, Suella Braverman is back in the cabinet presiding over an asylum system collapse and protest crackdowns. A return to firm decision-making after a month of dizzying U-turns? His very first international effort as Britain’s leader was to reverse his decision not to go to Cop27. Restoring some semblance of decency to political office? The now yet-again-disgraced Gavin Williamson had to resign after allegations of bullying, despite Sunak being informed of the claims by the former chair of the Conservative party.
None of these disappointments should be surprising. Sunak the upright, professional prime minister has always been a fiction that others tried to manifest into reality. Why should anyone have taken seriously his pledges of governing with compassion, integrity and accountability when he has a demonstrably dismal record on all three?
Spare us the sanctimonious promises about his new, caring government. As chancellor, his compassion did not extend to those on universal credit or those who needed support during the cost-of-living crisis. And he can keep his declarations of probity, after he stooped to repeating base and false culture-war talking points about “lefty woke culture” wanting to “cancel our history, our values and our women”, and postured on immigration, saying he would do “whatever it takes” to make the Rwanda policy work. As for accountability, I think we saw plenty of his contempt for that, when on both Partygate and Dominic Cummings’ lockdown violations, Sunak pushed the government line despite the distress it caused so many of the public who suffered privations and lost loved ones during that time.
But he was somehow always given a pass he did not deserve. Those in the centre were the most taken in by his sleek tech image, discounting his rightwing positions because he expressed them in less vulgar ways than his counterparts did. During the pandemic, he seemed to break with the image of the nasty party as the prime minister failed to live up to the gravity of the moment. “Admit it, you fancy Rishi Sunak”, British Vogue instructed us – “bright eyes twinkling with sincerity, the good cop to the bad cop of the boy you inevitably went out with”.
They got one bit right at least – Sunak has always been a politician whose main skill was to stand next to worse politicians and look good in comparison. He owes Boris Johnson and Truss a big debt for getting him this far. All he had to do was not be them. In their absence, Sunak is for the first time being judged as a politician in his own right and he is flailing.
We see now not an impressive intellectual whose time has finally come, but a man who outsources the sharper edge of his politics, has no real passions other than to “balance the books”, and no real imagination to conceive of doing that in ways other than off the backs of the most vulnerable. Sunak does not look like a man fit for the job, and being up to the job is the whole point of Rishi.
At one point in prime minister’s questions last week he seemed to fully dissociate, lost in his notes as the entire frontbench looked at him quizzically. When on the ropes, which doesn’t take much, he resorted to mortifying attacks on Keir Starmer about north London and Jeremy Corbyn. It all feels beyond terminal, as if Truss really did herald the death of the Conservatives but we can’t pronounce the party dead until a general election, with Sunak as a zombie leader.
In the meantime, we should expect even less of this wan prime minister than we have seen so far. Sunak is, above all, a product of a party that is still half-crazed by Brexit, and that still demands absolute loyalty to the cause. The Conservatives promoted disciples of this dangerous and unfeasible ideology rather than those most suited to leadership. Once in power and aware of the chasm between the demands of the job and their capabilities, the leaderships of these Brexit tribunes were short-lived. You saw it in Kwasi Kwarteng and in Truss. The moment the puff collapsed and turned into panic, the moment the fight turned into flee.
Sunak is already there, an understudy, gulping, alone on the epic stage he spent so long clambering on to. But the real tragedy is ours. A season of austerity, historic strikes, protests and civic action is upon us just as the Tory party hands power to a prime minister unable to come up with his own lines, and so has defaulted to the old script – cuts, culture war and crackdown. A collision with a discontented public is coming, and my money is not on Sunak.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist