Inside Rishi Sunak’s first 100 days: Devout, driven but where’s the magic?
At this week’s Cabinet away day, Rishi Sunak invited pollster Isaac Levido to give a summary of Tory chances at the next election. Normally, this would be a discussion about winning, but that’s a bit of a stretch, even for those optimistic souls in Chequers. “Our goal, now, is to become competitive by the next election,” said one minister. “We’re not in the race currently, but with Rishi, we could be.” Sunak is more popular than his party, but that’s not saying much. His personal satisfaction rating is the lowest ever recorded for a prime minister at the 100-day stage.
This is the week that sleaze returned to haunt the Tory party. Sunak is being asked why he didn’t ask about Nadhim Zahawi’s tax status before making him party chairman. He’s facing questions about Richard Sharp being appointed BBC chairman after helping Boris Johnson arrange a £800,000 loan. Soon, he’ll have the joy of Johnson’s resignation honours list to look forward to: a list that is, by definition, cronyistic. But inside his No 10, this doesn’t resonate.
Sunak’s No 10 has become soundproofed from the political noise. The Prime Minister prides himself on focus, on not being blown by the political winds as Johnson was. And, his aides argue, don’t these various distracting scandals remind the Tory Party about why they’d be crazy to bring Johnson back? Don’t they make the contrast rather nicely? “What’s happening inside is the same as what he says outside,” says one of his allies. “He has set a firm list of priorities and he won’t give up.”
Sunakism – and his priorities
Sunak’s first job – to calm the markets – was accomplished on day one. His arrival in No 10 immediately put Britain back in the middle of the pack for global borrowing rates. His actual policies (tax rises, holding firm in public sector pay) was precisely what the markets expected from someone who speaks of unfunded tax cuts as if they are the deadliest political sin. At heart, Sunak is a low-tax Tory, who makes long speeches about the moral case for the Government confiscating less of other people’s money. But the only way to do this, he thinks, is lower spending.
In the great Tory tax schism, Sunak has become the high priest of the fiscal Conservatives – denouncing as heresy, as outright delusion, the idea that tax cuts can pay for themselves by growing the economy. Even as Chancellor, he’d frequently attack the idea of deficit-funded tax cuts. The target, probably, was Johnson, who didn’t see why borrowing could not take the strain. This was Sunak’s great divide with Liz Truss during the summer, and he believes her fate (and the market reaction) vindicated his point.
If there’s such a thing as Sunakism, it’s this belief in trade-offs: if you have A, it means you cannot have B. His trade-offism is the polar opposite of Johnson’s cakeism. Refusal to accept trade-offs, he thinks, has landed his party (and his country) in the current mess. To impose lockdown without commissioning a proper study to weigh up costs and benefits was, to him, baffling: he did more than perhaps anyone else in the cabinet to argue against it. And he saw, in Liz Truss’s brief tenure, the cakeism on steroids: massive energy subsidies and massive energy cuts. The blowup he predicted for so long finally arrived.
His second job – to stop Tory civil war – is working so far, even though it involves him caving at every serious rebellion (on wind power, planning, online censorship etc). To an extent not properly appreciated outside Westminster, Sunak believes he is governing a coalition with Tory factions and has no choice but to compromise as he did not win a proper leadership election. But the concessions, he thinks, are not on anything mission critical.
This brings us to the Sunak mission, and his idea of prioritising three main objectives and organising his government accordingly. “Our priorities are your priorities,” he says – by which he means that his internal polling has identified that the NHS, illegal migration and the cost of living crisis are the issues that trouble voters the most. His “five pledges”, outlined earlier this month, are designed to address this: that he’ll cut inflation, debt and NHS waiting lists while “stopping” small boat landings and growing the economy. It’s a fairly uninspiring list but is intended to win credibility. And if the five pledges are met, he can make five new ones – in time for the election.
Sunak has tried his best, so far this year, to present his agenda; to say who he is. But there’s a difficult part of this: he is a former financier, elected in 2015, who arrived at No 10 as a cleanup candidate with the mindset of a management consultant. He wants to identify problems, consult widely then deliver. The other part of politics – energising, inspiring, persuading – was always going to be his weak spot. His own polling suggests there’s a chunk of swing voters who are sick of Westminster entertainment (or tragicomedy) and just want progress. That’s who Sunak’s government is aimed at.
How the NHS away day explains Sunak’s modus operandi
His change of governing style is perhaps best shown in a recent Saturday health summit with NHS and care home chiefs. Almost half of the time lost to ambulance handover delays is happening at just 15 out of 141 NHS trusts so Sunak wanted to know: what are they doing wrong that others are doing right? How did Croydon save 1,300 hospital bed days with ‘virtual wards’ where patients were discharged to their homes under close digital supervision? Can that be rolled out? He involved Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, but took personal charge.
With 25 health chiefs behind a horseshoe-shaped table in No 10 he wanted to quiz the bosses, look at the figures, identify the problem. Money, he firmly believes, is not the issue: he wrote enough cheques to the NHS as chancellor and was promised progress that never materialised. So he wants to try his own hand at health reform. He has been ordering facts, figures, reports, analysis: everything to try to work out what’s going so badly wrong in places like Birmingham. Then he’ll ask the NHS bosses what the problem is; what’s stopping them making the changes? Then he’ll see if he can play policy matchmaker, as one NHS chief shares tricks with another. He designed the Eat Out to Help Out scheme in the same way: summoned retail chiefs to the Treasury, sat them down with officials and asked for their input. It proved a template for how he thinks he can succeed in the big political challenges where others failed.
“About 40 people there sent a report, and he’d read every one,” says one of the attendees. “What other prime minister would spend a Saturday doing that?” The answer, of course, is Gordon Brown: another workaholic PM who used to set off the burglar alarms in No 10 by arriving at his desk too early. He ended up being seen as a control freak who could not see the wood for the political trees. “The difference is that Rishi doesn’t panic and that he has delivered before,” says one of Sunak’s allies. “Brown never did.”
Faith, unpopularity, Californication and the Tao of order
The unpopularity is, also, part of the plan: it’s the price that needs to be paid for credibility. As chancellor, Sunak was wildly popular when he announced a furlough scheme that would give people 80 per cent of their salary while they waited for the lockdowns to end. It was horrifically expensive and initially designed to last 12 weeks. It went on for 18 months. But he was, for this period, the toast of many households. He knew then that, when the time came to repay this money, the mood would flip. He’d tell friends that he was “prepared for the unpopularity” but that “no matter what happens to me in the end, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and know I’m doing the right thing.”
It’s hard to understand Sunak properly without factoring in his faith, he’s a practising Hindu and perhaps the most religious occupant of No 10 in a generation. He prays with his children every day and works with an idol of the elephant-faced Shri Ganesh on his desk. When asked to define his faith, he says it shapes his understanding of his life’s purpose. Anyone of any faith would say the same, but what matters is how he defines it. “When I talk about giving your life purpose, there is the concept of dharma in Hinduism which is about doing one’s duty.” So to him, doing the right-but-unpopular thing has a religious element.
But his evangelistic side was shaped by his five years in America. He was raised in Southampton and was (famously) educated at Winchester College but spiritually, Sunak is from California. He met his wife, Akshata Murty, while studying for an MBA at Stanford and still reminisces about the five years he spent “surrounded by Silicon Valley start-ups, living and breathing that entrepreneurial culture.” Such methods, he thinks, can be applied to the Government. Rather than be a block on reform, No 10 can be the driver of change – so if something matters, he’ll take charge, and implement ideas that come from outside the machine.
His reliance on external advice and research helped him argue about the risk of an inflationary surge at a time when the Bank of England – and everyone else – thought this was madness. He fought off a December 2021 lockdown, for example, after finding JP Morgan research that contradicted Sage figures. One of his current requests has been to find papers showing how to get the over-50s back to work. “He is a one-man policy unit,” says one of the ministers. “He knows more than the civil servants, and that makes them raise their game.”
One of the reasons that Sunak resigned as Chancellor was his dismay at the chaos. People had a right to an orderly government, he’d tell friends, and he could not defend the shambles any more. He could not defend promises (such as reforming care home provision) that he knew, as chancellor, were nowhere near to being delivered. To promise without a plan is, in Sunak’s eyes, the worst kind of fraudulent politics. Hence the lack of inspiring promises now: he wants to be sure the plans will work first.
Small boats and big government
Take small boats, which many Tory MPs think is a crisis on a par with the cost of living. The arrivals – sometimes exceeding 1,000 a day – suggest that border control has simply collapsed. Johnson responded by declaring that everyone who arrives here illegally will be sent to Rwanda, and not be allowed in Britain even if their asylum case succeeds. But how would he overcome the inevitable legal challenge? He had no idea. Human rights lawyers appealed, successfully, and the plane never took off.
The way around this is to pass a law giving the Rwanda scheme explicit parliamentary approval. He’s still in favour, seeing no other way to fulfil his pledge of “stopping” the small boats, encouraged by polling showing strong public support for deporting all who arrive here illegally. When flights start taking off for Rwanda, he believes, the world will take notice: and fewer people paying thousands to people traffickers will be inclined to make the final leg of their journey on a small boat. He won’t say more about this until he’s sure the scheme is legally bulletproof.
So Sunak’s premiership is defined more by a modus operandi than a world view or philosophy. A belief in duty, a refusal to cheer people by dangling things that he can’t deliver. But a faith that a properly-run Whitehall can make a dramatic, quick and visible difference. This is an optimism that most Tories don’t share, thinking the government always will be run in a chaotic way with new orders and new ministers fairly regularly. That’s why Tory liberals have tended to argue that the government that governs best governs least.
Sunak is (much) more optimistic about what a well-run machine can do. He agrees with Dominic Cummings that Whitehall could be vastly improved by new skills and disciplines (especially in data) and that you need a strong, active No 10 calling the shots. Like Johnson, Sunak does have faith in a Napoleonic, quasi-presidential model that does not see power split with HM Treasury. Few in Sunak’s Government deny that he’s the author of economic policy as well as everything else.
Sunak and the world
His views on foreign policy – and Britain’s role in the world – are harder to guess. One of the drawbacks to this Goldman Sachs alumni spending his career in the Treasury was that he became a one-field politician, never really developing a reputation for having thoughts beyond economic policy. While he has tried to correct this (and threw himself into the rural challenges facing his North Yorkshire constituents, becoming an expert in the economics of sheep farming) he has gravitated back to economics so much that no one is really sure what he thinks about the outside world. And there is, even now, a suspicion that he sees it with an accountant’s eye.
Tories who have spoken to him about the Northern Ireland Protocol have come away thinking he sees it as an administrative headache, rather than a threat to the integrity of the UK. On the day he entered No 10, he described the invasion of Ukraine as a economic problem that “destabilised energy markets and supply chains the world over” rather than an atrocity that opened a new battle for the defence of the free world.
But for all his lack of Churchillian verve, it’s impossible to point to any softening of Britain’s support for Ukraine. Quite the reverse. In recent weeks, Sunak led the pack in calling for tanks to be sent to Ukraine, dispatching a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks to put pressure on Germany. Number 10 has not been a block on plans to send arms to Ukraine in the way that the Ministry of Defence had feared: if anything, Sunak has urged Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to go further.
And defence overall? Macron recently pledged a huge rise in French military spending, matching Germany. But it’s far from clear that Sunak will go along with the target of spending 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence by the end of the decade. This figure was hailed by Johnson as the “logical conclusion” of the overall situation, but that figure will be decided finally by Sunak in the coming spending review. It may all come down to numbers in the end.
What difference can Sunak make?
When Sunak was Chancellor, I asked him what had inspired go into politics. He mentioned Narayana Murthy, his father-in-law, whose Indian software firm, Infosys, has made him one of the world’s richest people. “He created an enormous company that employs over 100,000 people,” said Sunak. “But he was of the view that politics is the best way to have a really significant impact, to make a difference. I was amazed that he was saying that, in spite of everything that he’s achieved.”
But what difference will Sunak be able to make? After 100 days he can claim to have stabilised the markets and his party, while starting work on bigger problems – and hopes to update us when he’s sure his fix will work. “I understand frustration at the lack of an upbeat narrative,” says one of his more loyal ministers. “But voters have had enough drama. We need achievements by next summer. Only then can we start to close the gap with Labour.”
This is his big gamble. Give bad news now, take the unpopularity hit, gain credibility and then up the tempo after the summer with successes under his belt. The bet is that the successes will materialise – and voters will be in a mood to listen to him should they do so. Only one prime minister has ever recovered from being so far behind in the polls: John Major. “People say this is 1997 all over again,” Liam Fox told guests at his birthday drinks in the Carlton Club earlier this month. “I think it will be closer to 1992.”
It’s a date mentioned quite a lot by Sunak’s allies. Historically, it’s their only hope.