Having spent fewer than a couple of weeks in 10 Downing Street, new UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces similar troubles to those that ousted his predecessors.
Criticism is mounting from all corners of British politics that he is acting in a way that puts the interests of his Conservative (Tory) Party ahead of the national interests of the British people, with the same accusations earlier marring the premierships of former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
This might not be a big issue for a party that achieved a landslide victory in the 2019 general elections. But the infighting in the Conservatives has not subsided, and Sunak appears to be following a pattern similar to that of Truss and Johnson, adding to allegations that the government has “lost control.”
Johnson used to make U-turns on pledges and policies, while Truss outdid him when it came to indecisiveness. Both Johnson and Truss adopted “diversionary tactics” when facing problems, with Johnson maintaining the earlier stance not to follow former US president Donald Trump’s decision in 2017 to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, for example.
Truss then announced that the UK would move the British Embassy to Jerusalem. Leaks from Sunak’s team during his bid to chair the party suggested that he would go ahead with Truss’ promise. But after assuming office, he followed the traditional stance, dropping Truss’ vow to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Such backtracking has also caused confusion about the UK’s commitment to fighting climate change just a year after it hosted the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow.
Initial reports said that Sunak would not attend the COP27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh “due to pressing issues at home,” mainly having to do with the UK’s monetary and economic statement set for 17 November. Sunak then made a full U-turn and announced he would be going to Egypt after all.
He is now facing criticism even from within his own party over his judgement. The debate about the soundness of his decision to re-install interior minister Suella Braverman just days after she resigned from Truss’ government after admitting breaking the ministerial code is ongoing.
Calls are rising for Sunak to sack minister Gavin Williamson who faces bullying allegations.
As in many similar cases involving Johnson, it seems that Sunak is protecting an ally despite his mishaps. Williamson has earlier been sacked from ministerial posts twice before. In 2019, he was sacked from the post of defence secretary after the leaking of confidential information from the UK’s National Security Council. He was sacked again as education secretary in 2021 following controversy around the grading of exams during the pandemic.
While Braverman admitted sending sensitive security information via her personal email once, it later turned out that she had committed the breach six times. In her resignation letter to her then boss, she was implicitly critical of the prime minister just days before her resignation to be replaced by Sunak.
Yet, Sunak might have an advantage in that he was brought in by his party to fix the economic situation left by Truss. His finance minister, Jeremy Hunt, was appointed in the last week of Truss’ premiership to stop the disaster created by a catastrophic mini-budget cutting taxes on the rich and increasing the country’s debt and budget deficit.
Hunt steadied the ship, stopping the market’s negative reaction.
Sunak has kept his ally Hunt in the job of running the Treasury, postponing a plan initially set to be announced by Hunt on the last day of October. That plan is now being worked on by both Sunak and Hunt.
Some of the economic problems the UK is now facing originated under Sunak when he was Johnson’s finance minister until May this year.
Tax rises and spending cuts are the expected pillars of the Sunak-Hunt plan to rescue the UK economy to be announced on 17 November. Though the opposition Labour Party might not be against increasing taxes, it is opposing spending cuts, especially on public services.
Sunak’s own party is split, with some factions opposing raising taxes as this goes against self-proclaimed Conservative principles and others opposing spending cuts, especially on childcare.
The government statement might appease the markets and revive some of the lost confidence in the UK and its economy. But it might also create more opposition inside the UK, not only from the opposition but also from within the ruling party itself as well.
If the anticipated measures are met by public protest, it will only fuel the narrative that there is severe misjudgement involved in appointing those that are loyal rather than those that are capable to senior positions in British politics.
The British people are now braced for more political turmoil in the days ahead. Whether this will amount to forcing an early general election will only be seen after 17 November.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.