When Rishi Sunak became chancellor, there was a certain element of Mr Smith going to Washington. He was quite new (elected in 2015) and was struck to see promises being made without any plan on how to achieve them.
He was aghast at how lockdown was imposed without a basic cost-benefit analysis, or even serious discussion about its drawbacks. The see-no-evil approach, he thought, would count as gross negligence in the outside world. But in government, it’s seen as “just politics”.
He never quite acclimatised to this and, in the end, resigned as chancellor because of it. “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly,” he said in his resignation letter.
He had reconciled himself to writing the cheque for projects he disliked but Boris Johnson wanted (like HS2). But when the prime minister pledged to subsidise care home costs, Sunak knew – as chancellor – that the plans were just not being put in place to make it happen. It was, he thought, a fake promise. They were all living a lie.
As Prime Minister, he inherited quite a few of these fake promises but only now, a year into the job, is he starting to call them out. The idea that Britain was going to be able to ban new petrol car sales in 2030 was always a fiction. The necessary car charging network simply wasn’t going to be built. The price of electric cars wasn’t coming down fast enough so motorists risked huge costs.
The 2030 date was one Johnson made up, to be five years ahead of the EU. It was all a nonsense and everyone in government knew it. Sunak simply decided to say it.
He’s being viciously attacked because of the principle. He has broken the omertà of net zero, disobeying the rule that you never talk about its costs, problems or contradictions. He is instead levelling with voters about the costs and asking if they justify the environmental benefit.
This is what enrages his critics: since when was this the test? If Sunak goes to Whitehall and asks why money is being squandered to no real purpose, what might be next for the chop? He sees this as lobbyists vs taxpayers and is happy with the fight.
All this cuts to the core of who Sunak is as a person and a politician. If he has an -ism, it’s tradeoff-ism: a belief in being frank about the costs and benefits of policies, of being honest about the price that will be paid and sacrifices made.
Failure to level with voters, he thinks, isn’t being strategic or naughty: it’s just fraud. Organised deceit. It’s what he has come into politics to confront, rather than perpetuate. He has a word for it: “fairy tales” that politicians tell. Promises that are mirages and corrode public trust.
He lost the leadership race after accusing Liz Truss of economic “fairy tales” and doesn’t regret doing so. Nor does he regret his opposition to lockdown. And this is what drives his new strategy: he’s seeing his desire for straight talking not as political naivety but as a strength.
And if Keir Starmer is in a play-it-safe, bore-voters-into-submission mode, he thinks, it’s time for him to be bold – and break the consensus, change the argument. His belief is that hard truths, while upsetting Westminster, will resonate with voters. And that Labour will not dare follow him if he challenges a fashionable consensus.
So after net zero, what could be next? HS2 is an obvious candidate. It started at £33 billion, but now the expected cost is almost £100 billion. The economic case could be made (at a push) originally, but not today. So the HS2 project will be trimmed, albeit not abandoned.
The other lie is the idea that Britain has a healthy, low unemployment figure of 4.3 per cent. Count those on other forms of out-of-work benefit and it’s 12 per cent, rising to 18 per cent in big cities and 25 per cent in Blackpool. In the middle of a national worker shortage crisis, this egregious waste of human life and talent is quite the scandal.
Sunak knows his officials are writing off 1,750 people a day, judging them too sick to do any work at all. Some, of course, will be. But this number has risen tenfold since David Cameron first came to power.
Although Sunak has started welfare reform, he has not (yet) given a speech about the wider principles at stake. He may wish to do so, because this – like net zero – is territory in which Labour fears to tread. It took Tony Blair years to summon the courage to discuss welfare reform, a subject that makes his party members deeply uneasy. The ever-cautious Starmer would probably not dare.
Another hard truth is that welfare dysfunction is driving demand for immigrants, now arriving at a rate of about a million a year. This compounds pressure on housing.
After losing a major house-building vote in the Lords last week, Sunak should return to this in the King’s Speech and make it a mission: Nimbyism must be vanquished, he can say, and Labour is part of the problem. He could enlist other projects (like the case for a new “quarter” in east Cambridge) as part of a general push. It may anger blue-wall Conservatives, but it’s a necessary fight.
Some truths are, perhaps, a bit too hard. The “triple lock” on pensions is notoriously unaffordable, but pensioners pack too big an electoral punch so the bribe will probably stay. Another truth is that the NHS is in mid-collapse: the idea of it being saved by higher spending was a fairy tale. The welfare list is swelling in part because NHS care is so hard to come by: the failures compound each other.
They are, of course, Conservative failures. It makes for a rather odd party conference theme: that only the Tories can be trusted to clean up the mess left by the Tories. But with Starmer shying away from any kind of serious reform, Sunak may have a point.
“I firmly believe that the public are ready to hear the truth,” he said in his resignation letter. This is intended as the theme for the rest of his leadership: fairy tales vs realism. It didn’t work so well during his leadership campaign, but he can only hope that it will be second time lucky.