What next, now Rishi Sunak is prime minister?

Sunak might be seen to have more political nous than his two disgraced predecessors, but he's an ideologically right-wing Tory from the right of the party. The fact that he's presented as a pragmatic centrist shows how far to the right the party has swung.

Right-Wing Watch

Devoid of the traditional family poses, the wide smiles, and the euphoric waves to the cameras, Rishi Sunak’s arrival to No 10 was a much more subdued affair. Afterall, being the third prime minister of the year, and taking over from the shortest-serving PM in British history whose calamitous economic orthodoxy is battering Britain and its people, is a serious affair, with no time for frills.

Thankful that the ‘Bring back Boris’ hype and its threat of being the final nail in the Tory Party’s coffin never really made it beyond a handful of die-hard Johnson devotee Tory heavyweights, namely Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, and that the disastrous ‘Trussonomics’ era was over, ‘Sunak the Sensible’s‘ arrival brought, for many, a sigh of relief.

Forgive me for putting a damper on the party.

Sunak might be seen to have more political nous than his two disgraced predecessors, but he’s an ideologically right-wing Tory from the right of the party. The fact that he’s presented as a pragmatic centrist shows how far to the right the party has swung.

Henry Hill, deputy editor of ConservativeHome, writes that those who take the time to read up on his campaign promises “may be surprised by the candidate that emerges.”

“Because one of the strange things about Sunak is that he’s been painted as the liberal, establishment candidate, even though he is much more conventionally right-wing than either Johnson or Truss.”

The change Sunak intends to implement remains, for now, opaque and unclear. But the policies from his last leadership campaign, his performance as chancellor, the pledges made in his comically short maiden PM speech this week, his connections to right-wing think-tanks, and his resurrection of leading right-winger Suella Braverman as home secretary, point to the same somewhat depressing conclusion – what he is offering won’t be that dissimilar to what his predecessor was offering, just dressed up as not being offered by Liz Truss – ‘plus ça change’ so to speak. 

Of course, circumstances are different. Truss seriously spooked the markets with her uncosted borrowing proposals. Sunak looks like a return to Osborne economics although possibly with greater balance between budget cuts and increased taxation.

Nevertheless the chancellor-turned-prime-minister kept several of Truss’s closest allies on his top team. James Cleverley kept his job as foreign secretary – a position that was rumoured to be set aside for Penny Mordaunt, Sunak’s rival for the leadership who pulled out on Monday. Therese Coffey was made environment secretary, while the ‘anti-woke darling of the right‘ Kemi Badenoch kept her job, and ‘Rwanda-dreaming‘ Suella Braverman made a shock return as home secretary.

Right-wing think-tank connections

As we know, Truss and her disastrous economic programme, were influenced by right-wing think-tank allies, like the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Sadly, Rishi Sunak has similar connections. Soon after becoming an MP in 2015, he wrote a report for the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), the right-wing think-tank co-founded by Margaret Thatcher. The report called for the creation of ‘freeports’ around the UK, the idea being that tax-free, deregulated outposts will revitalise post-industrial coal cities. Such a policy was tried in the 1980s but, due to its lack of success, was dropped by Cameron in 2012.

Prior to becoming an MP, Sunak worked at the Policy Exchange, another right-wing think-tank, which, as OpenDemocracy reports, like the CPS, does not declare its donors.

As chancellor, he gave, in the IEA’s words, ministers a “financial reality check” at a “packed fringe event” hosted by the IEA’s director general Mark Littlewood and the Taxpayers’ Alliance chief executive John O’Connell.

As Julian Jessop, a fellow at the IEA who backed Truss, was quoted by Bloomberg over the summer:

“The similarities between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are bigger than the differences.”  

Policies from his last leadership bid

Sharing the same drive to cut net migration to Britain as his reappointed home secretary, Sunak is – or at least was during his summer campaign for the top job – committed to “creating a cap set annually by Parliament on the number of refugees we accept each year via safe and legal routes, amendable in the face of emergencies”. This was  translated by ConservativeHome as being about attempting to drive down numbers where the government can to “offset the continual failure to bring illegal crossings under the control?”

Which brings us to Rwanda. During the agonising Truss/Sunak contest, both candidates came under fire for promising more Rwanda-style deals to remove asylum seekers from the UK. Leading the criticism was Amnesty International, which labelled the plans as “dreadful” and that they would come at “great human and financial cost.”

The fact that Sunak reappointed Suella Braverman, who dreams of sending migrants to Rwanda, rings alarm bells about the PM’s plans for immigration and, more broadly, about his right-wing proclivities.

Then there’s those pesky EU laws that need dealing with.

Unlike his calamitous predecessor, who was frequently accused of political ‘flip-flopping’, having abruptly transitioned from a Remainer to ardent Brexiteer, Sunak voted Leave. His early support of Brexit, “put him on the right side of history within the Conservative Party,” as Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics, said

Truss had vowed to start a ‘bonfire of EU red tape‘ and scrap remaining EU laws by the end of 2023. Charities and trade unions are now calling on the new PM to shelve the bill that would scrap EU-era workers’ protection and environmental legislation. Whether he will looks doubtful, as echoing Truss’ EU-law-bonfire pledges, on July 16, Sunak wrote in the Telegraph:

“Today, I make a promise. If I am elected prime minister, by the time of the next General Election, I will have scrapped or reformed all of the EU law, red tape and bureaucracy that is still on our statute book and slowing economic growth.”

Like Truss intended, Sunak will use ‘Brexit freedoms’ to deregulate. 

Then there’s trade unions. Over the summer, both Sunak and Truss were slammed as “Thatcher tribute acts” after they threatened the right to strike during a TV debate. As chancellor, Sunak had ignited fury among trade unions after he suggested he could impose a public sector pay freeze.  

With a winter of discontent looming, Sunak faces strike ballots and action across the public sector. If his first public speech as prime minister is anything to go by, in which he spoke of there being “difficult decisions to come,” providing solutions to the real terms pay cuts that are affecting thousands of ambulance workers, teachers, nurses, train drivers, university lecturers, civil servants and other public sector workers, look unlikely to be given priority.

‘Hard choices’

Speaking of “hard choices” Sunak – who is richer than the King don’t forget – threatens cuts that will be more brutal than George Osborne’s austerity. Backed by his fellow multi-millionaire chancellor Jeremy Hunt (who was part of David Cameron’s original austerity cohort, having said Cameron and George Osborne showed political “genius” by persuading the country to accept public spending cuts without triggering violent protests, and, incidentally, co-authored a book that called for the NHS to be replaced with private insurance), the people of Britain, who have patiently sat through 12 years of food bank reliance, in-work poverty, and cuts that have brought public services to breaking point, look likely to face the insult – and devastation – of a “new age of austerity.”

Sadly, austerity seems to be Sunak’s ‘big thing.’

As chancellor, Sunak had clashed with Boris Johnson on a number of policy decisions. At the heart of their differences was an ideological split. Johnson had promised to end austerity and sought some big spending to deliver his priorities, even after the economic turmoil unleashed by the pandemic. Described as more “fiscally hawkish“, the then chancellor advocated for the purse strings to be tightened to keep spending under control. 

In October 2021, during the week he cut millions of incomes by £1,040 a year, the then chancellor had said the country should be “grateful” for austerity. Defending the plans to cut the £20 a week uplift to UC, Sunak has asked: “Is the answer to their hopes and dreams just to increase their benefits?”

Levelling up?

Questions have also been raised about what levelling up might look like under Rishi Sunak. The now infamous video of Sunak telling Tories at a summer garden party in Tunbridge Wells that he had taken money from deprived urban areas in order to give it to other parts of the country, so ‘areas like this are getting the funding they deserve’, is coming back to haunt the new PM.

The damning footage was raised by Keir Starmer at Sunak’s first PMQs this week. The PM doubled down on his position, saying: “There are deprived areas in our rural communities, in our coastal communities and across the south and this government will relentlessly support them.”

As Sunak and his chancellor Jeremy Hunt prepare to launch a new wave of austerity, it makes you wonder how already cash-starved councils and communities will cope, and how ‘levelling up’ will ever be achieved.

Alternatives to big expenditure cuts

While the popular narrative – spun by the likes of the Telegraph which alludes to the looming of ‘big spending cuts’ as £’40bn of savings are needed’, and therefore the political elites have little choice but to inflict pain on people by going down the austerity road – there are alternatives to cutting already heavily frayed public services.

Some tax rises could be executed easily and would rationalise the tax system. For example, in what is perhaps the most flagrant example of a regressive tax, people earning over £50,000 a year virtually pay no NIC on earnings above that figure.

Back in 2009 during the banking crisis, Left Foot Forward columnist Prem Sikka wrote a piece in the Guardian on the alternatives to public spending cuts. Cutting the welfare programme enjoyed by corporations, such as the tax relief on borrowings, was one alternative Prem put forward.

Meanwhile, Andy Street, Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, has issued a plea to Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt to raise taxes rather than cut public services in their crucial autumn statement next month. Street says ‘a little extra’ is needed to support public services valued by the public.

As we saw after a decade of cuts inflicted on the country by George Osborne, when the economy was left in a dire state, austerity was, in the TUC’s words, an “economically ruinous policy” that should never have been allowed to see the light of day.

As Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee writes, Sunak’s threatened cuts will be more brutal than austerity, but they are a choice, not a necessity.

The classic ‘Establishment’ Tory politician

But then coming from the same cohort of privileged Oxford-educated politicians that are painfully out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people, Sunak’s threat of more austerity comes as little surprise.

While being the UK’s first British-Asian prime minister offers some much-needed respite from the chubby white blokes that typically fill the top jobs, in most respects he is a classic Establishment Tory politician. He attended the extremely posh Winchester College, where he was head boy. The £45,000 a year private school has produced “no fewer than six chancellors of the Exchequer.” He went on to study politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) at Oxford, where, according to Tatler, he had talked about being a future Conservative prime minister. Like Winchester, politicians with the  PPE degree – aka the ‘Oxford degree – make up an astonishing proportion of Britain’s elite.

After graduating from Oxford University in 2001, Sunak became an analyst for Goldman Sachs, where he worked until 2004 and then pursued a Master of Business Administration at Stanford University under the prestigious Fullbright scholarship. He joined a series of hedge funds and married Akshata Murthy in 2009, the daughter of Indian billionaire Narayana Murthy, aka the ‘Bill Gates of India.’

Sunak only entered politics seven years ago when he became MP for Richmond in the Yorkshire Dales, succeeding William Hague in the 2015 general election. Noting his little time in parliament, the Guardian’s Whitehall editor Rowena Mason says the clear indications are that Rishi Sunak is very right-wing and “we shouldn’t expect him to be a centrist just because of tone or because he’s not Liz Truss. Pro-City, pro-deregulation, pro-fiscal discipline, with a side order of tax cuts if possible – that’s the closest thing to Sunakism at the moment.”

Representing the same free-market worldview as Truss, the billionaire that is Rishi Sunak is far from the centrist pragmatist many perceive him as. What is perhaps the most worrying part of the whole sorry saga currently dominating Westminster politics, is that for many, his opaque graduation to No 10, which saw him get there without a single speech, interview or debate, comes as a blessed relief, given who and what came before him.

While less ostensibly ideological than his predecessor, his ascent to PM represents a triumph to the right-wing Thatcherite arm of the Tory Party. Remaining decidedly pro-Brexit, despite the pitfalls of lost trade, being committed to the Rwanda drivel and unhesitant to slash spending, as we await Sunak’s fiscal plans, we shouldn’t expect the PM to be pouring the same money at financially struggling families as he did at businesses during the pandemic as chancellor. That’s for sure.

Right-Wing Media Watch – Tory press changes its tune on Sunak

What was a shrill dog whistle from start to finish was aided by the much of the press which slavered in sensationalising the agonising spectacle of the Conservative leadership contest. Truss raced ahead of Sunak for right-wing media endorsements and the kingmakers of British democracy got what they wanted when she was crowned victor in early September.

The Daily Mail’sshameless support of Liz Truss and her tax cutting, freedom-loving mantra was criticised for stitching things up bigtime.

No sooner had the sobering realisation kicked in that Truss was about as competent to run the country as a lettuce, the Tory press began to furiously backpedal, setting their sights on Sunak to wave a magic wand over the mess of his predecessor’s 45-day reign.

Striking a hypocritically ebullient note on its reports on Sunak becoming PM, the Mail’s frontpage on October 25 splashed with ‘A new dawn for Britain: Rishi Sunak becomes our youngest modern PM – and first with an Asian heritage.’

Meanwhile the Sun, which just weeks earlier had painted Truss as the ‘radical prime minister we need for the crisis engulfing Britain,’ after refraining from an open endorsement of either candidate in the summer, portrayed Sunak as some kind of superhero, with the headline: “The force is with you, Rishi”, alongside an image showing him holding a light sabre.

The Daily Express, which officially announced its endorsement of Truss as the ‘right choice’ for the country and rejection of Sunak in mid-August, spouted exuberant Rishi headlines.

The Telegraph, which ended up pro-Truss in the leadership contest after a readers’ poll suggested they backed Truss by 60/40, ran with Sunak’s warning to Tories about unity, saying: “PM aims to bring warring factions together for ‘one shot’ at ending economic crisis.”

The only big paper to allude to how he is yet another unelected Tory PM on its front pages was the Mirror.

Meanwhile the right-wing political magazine the Spectator, which seemed to be fairly neutral during the Truss/Sunak contest, has pushed out effusive Sunak content since his arrival at No 10.

Six reasons to be optimistic about a Rishi Sunak premiership’ wrote the Spectator’s editor Fraser Nelson. One of the reasons to be optimistic is, according to Fraser, because Sunak as ‘ill-suited to campaigning’ because he likes to ‘under-promise and over-deliver.’ Fraser, incidentally, came under fire in 2013 for publishing a column that appeared to support the Greek far-right party Golden Dawn.

James Forsyth, political editor of the Spectator, who is also a columnist in the Sun, has devoted pen time to the ‘momentum’ being with Sunak now‘ and ‘Penny drops, Rishi wins.’

Sunak’s relationship with the Spectator’s political editor has not gone unnoticed. The new PM was reportedly best friends with Forsyth at Winchester College, and was best man at Forsyth’s wedding to Allegra Stratton in 2011.

Sunak might have influential political editors on his side for now, but as we have seen time and time again, the malevolent machine of the right-wing press doesn’t think twice in backstabbing leaders, once there is a whiff of weakness.

And there’s nothing to suggest Rishi Sunak will be any different.

Woke-bashing of the week – ‘Culture war warrior’ Kemi Badenoch attacks LGBT+ Magazine in parliament

Sunak’s first week in office saw him reappoint not just one ‘right-wing darling’ of the Tory Party, but two. As well as the shock reappointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary, Kemi Badenoch who, as a leadership contender in the summer stood on the ‘anti-woke’ platform and is described as the ‘anti-woke darling of the right,’ kept her role as trade minister. She has also been given the role of equalities minister, because, Rishi Sunak, reportedly, doesn’t believe the women and equalities brief is worthy of a minister’s full attention.

Living up to her hard-right standing, Badenoch used her first parliamentary appearance in the role to attack the boss of PinkNews, the LGBT+ magazine. Speaking in the Commons, the MP for Saffron Walden accused the founder of PinkNews of wanting to “insult or accuse” her. In what was the second time Badenoch has used her government platform to publicly demean a critical journalist, she also made allegations about the magazine’s legal history.

In an article published on October 25 about the reappointment, PinkNews described Badenoch as a “vehemently anti-trans Tory MP.” The article speaks of how Badenoch had secretly met with anti-trans activist Keira Bell and anti-trans lobby group LGB Alliance in her first stint as an equalities minister. It was reported that LGB Alliance reached out to her to argue against banning conversion therapy, a practice considered, as PinkNews notes, “torture” by the United Nations.

In a social post, Benjamin Cohen, the chief executive of PinkNews, cited Badenoch’s abstention on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and record on trans rights, saying the appointment was one “many LGBTQ+ campaigners feared.”

When asked to respond to the allegations made by Cohen in the House of Commons on October 26, Badenoch said:

“I’m afraid that this particular individual is someone who uses Twitter as a tool for defamation. He has even been sued by the honourable member of Edinburgh West.

“What I would like to say, Mr Speaker, as we do begin a new era of equality, is that the Equality Act is a shield not a sword. It is there to protect people of all characteristics, whether they’re young or old, male or female, black or white, gay or straight.

“We are running a compassionate equality strategy, and we should not be distracted by people who use Twitter as a way to insult or accuse Members of Parliament. Before we come to Prime Minister.”

As the Independent reports, the claim that the media company’s CEO was sued by the MP for Edinburgh West, Liberal Democrat Christine Jardine, is false.

Cohen has urged the equalities minister to apologise for the falsehoods.

“It is disappointing that one of the first actions of the new Minister for Women and Equalities is to use their Parliamentary Privilege to spread misinformation and untruths,” he said.

Badenoch’s comments were widely criticised. Jeremy Corbyn tweeted that instead of using her first appearance as women and equalities minister to ban conversion therapy, demand better trans healthcare and condemn the rise of LGBT+ hate crimes, Badenoch attacked the CEO of PinkNews.

Meanwhile, the appointment of the hard-right Tory as minister of equalities has been mocked. Green MP Caroline Lucas responded to the news by sarcastically tweeting: “Kemi ‘culture war warrior’ Badenoch to become our equalities minister… excellent.”

Kemi Badenoch, an influential figure on the right of the party and with Tory membership, backed Rishi Sunak to be the next PM. Could it be that the reappointment of the ‘culture war warrior’ is repayment by Sunak for what was a major boost for the former chancellor’s campaign to enter No 10?

Or perhaps it is not as ‘grubby’ in the deal-sealing sense, and is merely representative of the new PM’s own reprimand of ‘lefty woke culture’ and pledge to stop “woke nonsense”, “stand up to left-wing agitators” and “protect British freedoms” if he became prime minister.

Now that he is prime minister, it will be interesting to see how the Tories’ culture war rhetoric develops. Many in the Party continue to believe that their ‘anti- woke’ attacks will bring electoral gains.

I think the country is a better place than that, but time will tell.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead leads on the Right-Wing Watch project at Left Foot Forward

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