We are entering an economic storm with a leader we barely know

(Evening standard)

Even in a year of extraordinary political volatility, the fall and rise of Rishi Sunak was a startling sight. On the day of his appointment as prime minister – the first British of Asian descent to achieve the primacy – it is worth remembering that in April it seemed possible to leave politics at the forefront.

Contorted by the poor reception given to his spring statement and the controversy over his wife’s tax affairs, his own US green card and (let’s not forget) his fine for violating Covid regulations, the then Chancellor was widely regarded as an exhausted politician. force. On April 4, in the ConservativeHome website’s regular poll of party members and their opinion of cabinet members, Sunak was third from bottom, below household names such as Nigel Adams and Michael Ellis.

To be fair, he got up from the canvas, resigned July 5 from the cabinet to help force Boris Johnson’s defenestration and entered the next leadership contest, only to be defeated by Liz Truss.

It was just seven weeks ago. Now, after Truss’s disastrous premiership interlude, he’s finally at number 10 and digging into the most formidable battlefield to face any new prime minister since Margaret Thatcher in 1979 (perhaps even worse than her own).

Sunak’s public popularity has never been greater than in the heart of the pandemic, when he was particularly associated with the job-saving layoff program. Yet one of the reasons he was always so cautious about the block – and often explicitly hostile to its extension or renewal – was that he knew the emergency measures he was taking would one day involve the mother of all credit card bills that they landed on the doormat of the Treasury. What he did not know was that the impact on public finances would be radically exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine, a significant factor in current inflation levels.

Rising interest rates, rising prices, millions of families facing severe financial hardship and many struggling to keep absolute poverty at bay – this is the landscape that Sunak inherits. Yet, as Kwasi Kwarteng’s successor as Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has rightly observed, restoring basic economic stability will involve some extremely unpopular decisions, including spending cuts (certainly in real terms) that will build pressure on already faltering public services. .

We will have a clearer idea of ​​the pain ahead when the medium-term fiscal plan, expected on Monday, is unveiled. But it is already certain that tax increases and renewed austerity will be involved in the economic recovery project. Such measures are never popular. When mortgage prices and premiums are on the rise, they have the potential to be politically toxic.

At the moment, and understandably, the Conservative Party is basking in the glow of a political movement that escaped a level of extinction event over the weekend (as Boris Johnson made his absurd offer to return to number 10) and is now led by a politician with proven competence and strategic ability.

Yet Sunak’s honeymoon, if he has one, will be short. Despite all the talk of unity today, he has inherited a party that may have become ungovernable; which has simply lost its famous instinct to behave, when necessary, as a single organism. The new prime minister prevailed in the race to succeed Truss in part because he was able to win unexpected allies such as hard-line Eurosceptic Steve Baker and right-wing former interior minister Suella Braverman. But their support will be obtained with reassurance on how Sunak will govern; it is strictly conditional.

Above all, it must reintroduce itself into the electorate; those millions of voters bewildered by the arrival at Number 10, for the second time in two months, of a prime minister for whom they did not vote directly.

Yes, Sunak had a high profile as chancellor and was enlightened during the race to succeed Johnson, but in practice it is an unknown for the vast majority of voters. If polls and political history can be any guide, many of them will have already decided not to vote Conservative in the next general election. To avoid any chance of saying goodbye to the reborn Labor Party, Sunak must be ready to answer with panache, conviction and authority to the most basic question that will ultimately decide his fate and that of his party: who, in reality, this boy is. ? ?

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