Sunak Will Face A Trial By Fire: 11 Reasons Why We Shouldn't Celebrate Too Much

Sunak Will Face A Trial By Fire: 11 Reasons Why We Shouldn't Celebrate Too Much

by R Jagannathan - Oct 25, 2022 12:16 PM +05:30 IST
Sunak Will Face A Trial By Fire: 11 Reasons Why We Shouldn't Celebrate Too MuchRishi Sunak. (Picture via The Spectator)
  • For many reasons, Sunak should see his elevation as more a result of a specific set of planetary and political alignments.

    He will be Prime Minister, but his power will be circumscribed.

The election of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister of Great Britain has evoked excessive celebration in India.

Most newspapers led with the news, with The Times of India even making it an eight-column headline in Mumbai.

While it is fair to be proud that an Indian, and one with a Hindu identity, should have risen so high and so quickly in the land of our colonisers, it is premature to conclude that he will have a free hand to change Britain politically in any substantial way, especially to our advantage.

Sunak’s election is the result of a specific and unique set of circumstances that may not last, or recur in future. And one can surmise that he will be too beholden to backbenchers and power-brokers inside the Conservative Party to make any substantial policy difference.

His brief is to fix the British economy, nothing more, nothing less. And he will be blamed for anything that goes wrong.

Consider the unique set of circumstances that brought him to power, and why he will face many obstacles to exercising the normal powers of a Prime Minister.

First, Sunak was shooed in precisely because his predecessor Liz Truss screwed up royally, pushing the Conservative Party to its lowest levels of popularity in decades.

As The Telegraph put it, the party is on “life support”, with its popularity falling to the lowest ever level in polling history. The Telegraph was, in fact, rooting for Boris Johnson, not Sunak.

If Truss had only had the good sense to appoint a Sunak as Chancellor of the Exchequer, she could have avoided the embarrassment of being called the Prime Minister with the lowest tenure in office ever (44 days at the time of resignation).

Second, thanks to ebbing support for Truss and the Tories, Conservative members of Parliament want to put off a general election as long as possible. They know they will be wiped out if an election were to be held today, thanks to high inflation and a tanking economy.

They plumped for Sunak as he had the right credentials to steady the markets and put the economy back on its feet. Whether he can do that in the time available to him, and which too be shortened if the party fails to stay united under him, only time can tell.

Third, the Conservatives cut short a long internal election process where members of Parliament first decide on their top two choices after a process of elimination, and party members then decide who is the winner through a vote that can take weeks to verify.

This time, knowing that the country could not be put through to another grinding internal election process, the process of election was restricted to just the MPs. Sunak won because no Tory MP, or the extended party, wanted an election right now.

Fourth, the only Tory leader who could have prevented Sunak from becoming prime minister was Boris Johnson, but Johnson is himself under a cloud as investigations against him in the “partygate” scandal are yet to reach finality.

Johnson, despite enjoying wider support in the party, may have ended up resigning once again if the probe goes against him. That was something the party could not afford: the prospect of having to hold another election for the prime ministership after a few months, if Johnson was deemed to be damaged goods after the probe.

Fifth, Sunak’s other challenger, Penny Mordaunt, did not have the credibility to run as prime minister, given the economic mess Britain is in right now.

The next questions to consider are whether Sunak, even as Prime Minister, will have the normal powers associated with the office.

One, as a non-White, and a Hindu to boot, Sunak will be a Prime Minister operating under a King who is not only head of state, but also head of the Church of England.

Britain may be a constitutional monarchy, but it is officially a Christian state. That itself is a handicap he will find difficult to overcome.

If Britain’s assertive Muslim minority starts getting shriller against a Hindu Prime Minister, his hands will be tied from Day One. More so when the Labour Party, which is often anti-India and anti-Hindu, is in the ascendant.

In fact, one can count on Labour to repeatedly ask Sunak to talk tough with India and its Bharatiya Janata Party government.

Two, Sunak is one of the richest men in the UK, and this will repeatedly be held against him as his racial and religious identity cannot be used to demonise him.

The Leftist Guardian ran a headline asking whether “Rishi Sunak’s £730m fortune make him too rich to be PM?” Another headline, this time by The Daily Beast, compared his wealth to that of the British royalty.

Its headline: “Britain’s Third PM This Year, Rishi Sunak, Is Twice as Rich as the King”. The Washington Post also made it a point to emphasise that Rishi is “richer than the royals”. Coming from an American publication which has no love lost for royals of any kind, this is rich. Pun intended.

The same thing that makes him a credible Chancellor of the Exchequer — his career in banking and closeness to the London financial markets — makes him less popular in a country now wallowing in misery as inflation spikes, growth falters, and people struggle with soaring energy bills. His wealth will be used against him.

Three, Sunak is widely seen to be in favour of a free trade deal with India, but as we saw earlier with Suella Braverman, Home Secretary under Liz Truss and another person of Indian origin, she went out of her way to prove she was a more loyal Brit than someone with Indian linkages.

Braverman made it a point to stress that Indians were overstaying their visas, and that any trade deal will have to address this issue.

So let us simply accept that to prove he puts British interests above that of his country of origin, he will need to show he is tough on India. His obvious Indianness will be held against him.

Four, it is difficult to see Sunak leading the Tories into the next general election.

Of course, if he miraculously manages to improve the economy’s prospects over the next two years — which is hardly a given in the current set of circumstances — he could indeed become a hero in his own right, but the party’s White upper and middle class base would any day prefer to change horses once the economic danger is past.

It is worth recalling that Britain rejected their war-time Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, once the war was won. Some politicians have a political life restricted to a limited set of circumstances.

Five, given Britain’s role as long-term cheerleader for the US, Sunak will not be able to distance his country sufficiently from this embrace to protect its own best interests.

It is worth noting that Boris Johnson led Britain into one of the harshest-ever sanctions against Russia.

For a country whose main claim to fame is a globalised financial services industry, this could not have been good, more so after Brexit.

Britain is now a small island with poorer links to continental Europe, and it desperately needs to kowtow to Uncle Sam for retaining any kind of geopolitical relevance.

Six, inside Britain, the Scots (and increasingly the Welsh) are seeking either independence or greater autonomy. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, after welcoming Sunak’s election as Tory leader and Prime Minister, warned him not to unleash another round of austerity.

Sturgeon wants a general election so that any gains for Scottish parties can be used to demand another referendum on independence.

In the last referendum, the independence vote was lost, but after Brexit, one cannot be sure this will remain true forever, since Scotland wanted to remain in the European Union.

Sunak’s political fitness will be sorely tested in both Scotland and Wales.

For these and many other reasons, Sunak should see his elevation as more a result of a specific set of planetary and political alignments. He will be Prime Minister, but his power will be circumscribed.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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