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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonathan Freedland

Rishi Sunak is the best choice the Tories could have made – but Labour can still beat him

A composite image of Labour leader Keir Starmer, left, and prime minister Rishi Sunak
‘There’s scope to cast Sunak as a man of slick presentation but of appalling judgment.’ A composite image of Labour leader Keir Starmer, left, and prime minister Rishi Sunak. Photograph: Getty Images

Publicly, they said they feared no one. When Labour MPs were asked a week ago which of the three would-be successors to Liz Truss looked hardest to defeat, they shrugged off the question, insisting that Boris Johnson, Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak were all as weak and beatable as each other. But whatever the outward show, the truth is Labour got the Conservative leader that, at first glance, they had good reason to dread.

The evidence has been swift. On Thursday a poll showed that Sunak is more trusted on the economy, as well as on taxes and business, than Keir Starmer. When asked who they’d prefer as prime minister, it was close, but more voters went for Sunak. Never mind that the survey had Labour comfortably ahead of the Conservatives overall: the economy and leadership are reliably the two key determinants of general elections – and on both measures Sunak has the edge.

His debut at prime minister’s questions would have settled few Labour nerves. He was fluent and, admittedly after the bar was set low-to-subterranean by Truss, he conveys a basic competence, able to match Starmer’s defining offer to the electorate of a safe pair of hands. Only the most deluded partisan would deny Sunak is smart, with the obvious advantage that he is at least an associate member of the reality-based community – a fact vividly demonstrated during his summer campaign against Truss, when he regularly reminded his rival of the laws of economic gravity, only to watch as she crashed to Earth precisely as he had predicted. And though it has brought far less attention, still less resistance, than US satirists might have you believe, the fact that Sunak is the first British-Asian prime minister is not only a historic milestone but also a reminder of one of Labour’s enduring weaknesses: the party’s elected leaders have only ever been white men.

All of that will trouble Labour supporters who could soon be looking back fondly to the 44-day Truss era and its gargantuan poll leads. They dared to dream that those numbers would hold up if either of Sunak’s presumed challengers won the top job: Mordaunt would have been another Truss, while Johnson carried more baggage than a carousel at Terminal 5. Instead, by uniting around Sunak, the Tories look like an opponent that might just be getting its act together.

On one level, that’s true: given who they are, and the position they are in, Tory MPs made the best, most rational choice they could. But there are at least five reasons why none of that should induce panic in those who want to see a Labour government both win power and succeed.

Rishi Sunak during his first prime minister’s questions on 26 October.
Rishi Sunak during his first prime minister’s questions on 26 October. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

First, it’s clear that however flattering the contrast between Sunak and his immediate predecessor – and Starmer did well to note that, in his only competitive election, the new prime minister was “trounced by someone who was then beaten by a lettuce” – Sunak himself has weaknesses aplenty. His re-appointment of Suella Braverman, after a wilderness period that lasted all of six days, is an early stain that threatens to spread, as more detail emerges of the recklessly casual, and rule-breaking, attitude to information-sharing demonstrated by the woman charged with overseeing those who guard the nation’s secrets. Defenders will say he had to bring Braverman back, to keep the right on board and in return for her endorsement. But the same cannot be said of the return of Gavin Williamson, the first man to be awarded a knighthood for services to mediocrity. In his bid for team-of-rivals unity, Sunak has forgone the opportunity for a fresh start and assembled a government packed with faces wearily familiar from the shaming days of both Johnson and Truss.

Sunak has personal vulnerabilities too. Labour has no need to remind voters of Sunak’s vast wealth – which would allow its critics to brand the party anti-aspiration – because they can let others do that. But they can press him on non-dom status, which deprives the national coffers of £3.2bn a year and from which the Sunak household benefited directly until public exposure made the arrangement untenable. An even riper bruise to punch is Sunak’s summer boast to Tory activists that he had diverted funds from deprived communities to ensure leafy areas like theirs got leafier. Used adroitly, those few seconds of video should render hollow any promises the new PM makes on levelling up or protecting the most vulnerable.

There’s scope too to cast Sunak as a man of slick presentation but of appalling judgment. He should not be allowed to forget the folly of “eat out to help out” and, on a rather graver scale, his decision, in the very week that the UN warned that the world is failing to act in the face of a climate catastrophe, not to attend the Cop summit that may be a last chance to limit the havoc. Tories like to say they got the big calls right, but they got the biggest call of recent British political history – Brexit – dead wrong. It’s easy to forget, with his remainer vibes, but Sunak was an eager enthusiast for that act of economic and cultural self-harm.

Second, there is much to ensure the bloom falls off the Sunak rose pretty fast. On 17 November, he and the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, are set to impose a new round of austerity and, no matter how strenuously they insist that they are responding to global pressures, the voters know that the hole in the public finances was made wider and deeper by the Conservative government, thanks to the Truss-Kwarteng mini-budget. This won’t be like the austerity of a decade ago, which followed a decade of Labour investment. These cuts will pare already-stripped services to the bone. Witness the hospital waiting list for England that now stands at 6.8 million people, or the record numbers of people waiting more than 12 hours to get seen in A&E. And that’s before winter bites.

Third, Labour can take some comfort that it falls to Sunak and Hunt to clean up the mess left by their immediate predecessors. Had Johnson or Mordaunt taken over, there’s every chance they’d have made things worse – before handing the mop to an incoming Labour government.

Indeed, and this is a fourth argument against panic, it might actually be better for Labour if Sunak succeeds. Recall the Labour landslide of 1997, which came after a four-year economic recovery following the Tory disaster of Black Wednesday. That suggests not only that Britons are capable of inflicting delayed punishment on a government for an economic calamity that took place several years earlier, but that they tend to feel readier to turn to Labour when there is relative calm.

Finally, Labour supporters are also citizens. They should not want the country to be the smoking ruin it was becoming under Truss – the currency tanking, debts rising – just because that would hasten a Labour victory. If Sunak represents the least insane route the Conservatives could have taken, that should be a source of relief rather than alarm. By now Labour should be confident enough to think beyond merely reaching the summit – looking instead to the scale of the task they will face when they get there.

  • Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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