For clues to the essence of Rishi Sunak’s failure, there is no better guide than F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1937 essay Early Success. As Fitzgerald put it: “The dream had been early realized, and the realization carried with it a certain bonus and a certain burden. Premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to willpower – at its worst the Napoleonic delusion.”
Sunak, who is still only 43, has been succeeding spectacularly for almost the whole of his life. He was head boy at his prep school and at Winchester College (where the fees are now £49,152 per annum). He achieved a first-class degree at Oxford University; joined Goldman Sachs; went to the Stanford Graduate School of Business with a Fulbright Scholarship; made a fortune at a hedge fund and then a private investment partnership; married Akshata Murthy, the daughter of a billionaire entrepreneur; and was selected from 90 applicants to succeed William Hague in the safe Conservative seat of Richmond (Yorks), which he has represented since 2015.
He became a minister in 2018; was appointed chancellor of the exchequer at the age of 39; was much the most popular politician in Britain during the pandemic, spending hundreds of billions on business loans, special funds and (above all) the “furlough” or job retention scheme; and, on October 25 2022, became the youngest prime minister since Pitt the Younger.
Just consider that dazzling inventory of accolades and precocious triumphs. What part of Sunak’s meteoric rise could possibly have prepared him for adversity, fiasco or defeat?
Only once, before he made it to No 10, had he tasted the bitter lees of rejection – and it nearly finished him off. In March 2022, his spring statement was, to his astonishment, hailed as a dud. On the same day, it emerged that his father-in-law’s company, Infosys, had continued to operate in Russia during the first weeks of the Ukraine conflict. The then-chancellor reacted badly to media criticisms, revealing a tetchiness that has become familiar in the past year, but was new to viewers in the spring of last year.
Worse was to follow on April 6, when the Independent revealed that his wife had benefited from non-dom status, which meant that she only had to pay tax on money earned in the UK. Sunak badly mishandled the ensuing furore.
Murthy changed her tax status voluntarily, and her husband was cleared of all wrongdoing by Lord Geidt, then the independent adviser on ministers’ interests. But, I was told, he was so deeply traumatised by this career speed-bump that he came close to leaving politics altogether.
The episode is important because it so clearly foreshadowed all that was to come. Having decided, on balance, not to quit, Sunak played a central role in Boris Johnson’s downfall in July 2022. He was beaten by Liz Truss in the subsequent leadership contest, but, after her calamitous 49-day premiership, succeeded her in No 10. It is a role to which, for all his past success, he has proved himself utterly, totally unsuited.
Let us be scrupulously fair in our audit of Sunak as PM so far and acknowledge that the credit side of the ledger has a (modest) handful of entries. Alongside the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, Sunak has drawn a line under the fiscal madness unleashed by Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng; inflation is falling (though not quickly enough); in February, the Windsor Framework patched up one of the most egregious constitutional scars left by Brexit (which he backed in 2016); Sunak has been admirably firm on Ukraine and the atrocities of Hamas; he blocked at least some of Johnson’s most outrageous recommendations for honours; in July’s by-election, the Conservatives held on to Uxbridge and South Ruislip (just); and in his otherwise ludicrous conference speech in Manchester, he announced anti-smoking measures that have already commanded cross-party support.
But that’s about it. On the debit side, Sunak has so much to answer for. His fixation with “small boats”, Rwanda and marching refugees on to the Bibby Stockholm barge (infected with legionella) has been a national disgrace. He has badly mishandled this year’s wave of public sector strikes, assuming (quite wrongly) that vilifying unions and professional associations would resonate with the electorate as it did for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
In June, the PM and most of his senior colleagues were shamefully absent from the Commons when MPs debated and voted on the privileges committee’s damning report on Boris Johnson’s lies to parliament about “partygate” (“guilty not just of cowardice, but complicity”, in the words of Caroline Lucas, the outgoing Green MP for Brighton Pavilion). Only reluctantly did he attend the Cop27 climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh last November – a portent of Sunak’s subsequent lapse into demotic attacks on so-called “eco-zealots” and his deplorable speech last month, significantly slowing the UK’s strategy to achieve net zero by 2050.
That shift of priorities, like his cancellation at the Tory conference of the northern leg of HS2, has exasperated investors, who set a high premium on consistency. Meanwhile, the scandal of RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) crashing down in schools has become uncomfortably symbolic of the broken Britain over which he presides with a frozen rictus grin.
In May, the Conservatives lost more than 1,000 council seats in England, with their lowest share of the vote for ten years. In recent weeks, Labour has established a steady opinion poll lead of 15-20 points, and, on October 19, it overturned two huge Tory majorities in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire. It is now more probable than not that Sunak will lead his party to a heavy defeat.
Already, the excuses are being prepared: look at the bin fire that poor Rishi inherited, his friends say. All tail-end prime ministers suffer – Jim Callaghan, John Major, Gordon Brown.
But this will not do. Sunak still has a working majority of 58, thanks to Johnson’s crushing defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in December 2019. Labour under Sir Keir Starmer has had less than four years to recover from electoral disaster. Yet, in truth, the PM has been Starmer’s greatest ally in this endeavour.
In three particular respects, he has been a terrible prime minister. First, he has done nothing to restore public trust in his party specifically or in politics generally. On the steps of No 10 last October, mindful of the ethical crash of the Johnson era, he promised that his government would “have integrity, professionalism, and accountability at every level”.
In practice, however, he has failed his own test utterly. He reappointed Suella Braverman as home secretary only six days after she had resigned, having broken the ministerial code. He dithered feebly over Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs before sacking him as party chair in January.
Though the Tolley report into the allegations of bullying against Dominic Raab was perfectly clear in its findings, Sunak desperately hung on to the deputy PM and justice secretary, looking for a loophole that wasn’t there, before finally accepting his resignation on April 21. Instead of renewing standards in public life, he has encouraged conspiracy theories about what he calls the “permanent state” – his version of the “deep state” – and given Raab and others space to attack “very activist civil servants” who dare to question them.
Second, he has positively stoked the populist, nativist fervour that many hoped he would cool. Not all headlines age well, but I am glad that, six days after he entered Downing Street, I wrote a column entitled: “Rishi Sunak: culture warrior”.
From the start, he had identified the electoral potential in performative attacks on “wokery”. During the leadership contests of 2022, he complained that the Rwanda policy did not go far enough. No surprise then, that, on his watch, and without complaint from No 10, the Conservative Party has shifted towards something resembling MAGA UK: notably, in the National Conservatism conference in London in May and the launch in July of the “New Conservatives”, more than 25 Tory MPs elected in 2017 and 2019, many representing Red Wall seats, who want much stricter border controls and focus upon what they give the sinister name of “cultural security”.
When Braverman claimed in a speech in Washington DC last month that migration posed “an existential challenge for the political and cultural institutions of the west”, Sunak was happy for her to tickle the tummy of the Tory base. When she warned at the Conservative conference of a “hurricane” of newcomers, he did not bat an eyelid.
Does he believe any of this nationalist poison? “Rivers of blood” for the digital era? Sunak is the archetypal Davos man, Financial Times in hand, happiest in a private jet on his way to a summit or a meeting with tech billionaires. He moves in a multinational, multicultural world and understands perfectly well that, alongside the inherent merits of diversity, immigration is essential to economic success. I do not believe that he buys the Braverman spiel for a second.
But he is happy to exploit it for electoral purposes; to spark flints close to the most dangerous cultural tinder. In this respect, he is worse than Johnson or Truss: the former was a lumbering hulk of amorality, the latter ideologically deranged. But Sunak’s embrace of culture wars and his blowing of multiple dog whistles have been entirely calculated; and, therefore, all the more despicable.
Third, and worst of all, he is a man who does not begin to understand the times in which he has been called to lead. In his new book about Rupert Murdoch, The Fall, Michael Wolff describes the founder of Fox News, the late Roger Ailes, saying that the channel’s viewers lived in “1965… before the Voting Rights Act”.
Sunak’s problem is that, psychologically, he lives in 1985 (when he was, in fact, five). Though he presents himself as the epitome of 21st-century modernity, in cashmere hoodies, with a £180 Bluetooth-enabled travel mug, a tech bro with an impeccable Instagram game, he is actually a retro Thatcherite and helpless nostalgist.
At the Treasury, he hung a portrait of Nigel Lawson behind his desk. Lawson, who died in April, was an intellectually formidable, highly consequential chancellor. But he resigned in 1989. What does it tell you about Sunak that he has modelled himself on a politician who left the cabinet more than three decades ago?
The greatest paradox of his career is that he drew precisely the wrong lessons from the pandemic. He was never more popular than when intervening urgently in the economy, employing the might of 21st-century state power to save as many people as possible from indigence.
When he launched his “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, Wetherspoons announced discounts with branding celebrating “Dishy Rishi, Legend”. Bernie Sanders, of all people, celebrated the Tory chancellor’s measures, declaring that “that is the direction we should have gone here”.
Yet Sunak hated every minute of it. He hated splashing out so much public money. He hated lockdowns, arguing against their imposition and duration. A politician truly anchored in his time would have understood the pandemic was a sign of much more to come; a warning shot that a completely new statecraft was now required: one that confronted the challenges of the 2020s rather than of the 1980s.
Sunak ought to have been thinking big, fresh thoughts about climate emergency, the regulation of AI and quantum computing, the implications of longevity for health policy and social care, the prospect of ever-increasing population mobility, the perilous inequalities opening up between and within contemporary societies. Instead, he saw the measures he had been forced to take during the Covid crisis as a terrible aberration from the one true path and could scarcely wait to resume business as usual. His comfort zone is a world that now lies in ruins and from which a new approach to politics needs urgently to arise.
If there is such a thing as Sunakism, it is an ideological endgame: a doomed synthesis of ugly populism, neo-Thatcherism and personal vanity. He embodies what basketball coaches call the “hot hand fallacy”: the delusion that past success means future triumph. Even a minimal knowledge of political history should have steered him away from this terrible self-deception. Such, however, is hubris.
Presenting himself as the future of Conservatism, Sunak has merely demonstrated its intellectual exhaustion and has accelerated the decline and fall of the Tory empire.
“No decent career was ever founded on a public,” Fitzgerald warned. To say the least, Sunak has struggled badly with what he imagines to be his “public”. Soon enough, the magnitude of that failure will be made very clear.