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Friday, Mar 31, 2023

Don't believe it's back to boring, says Laura Kuenssberg

Don't believe it's back to boring, says Laura Kuenssberg

After the last few years - let alone the last few weeks - you can see why Michael Gove has said in a speech that he is grateful "boring is back".

Mr Gove, who has returned to cabinet as levelling up secretary and appears on this week's programme, made the comments at the London Press Club awards.

You too might feel relief that the crazy period of the Truss administration has come to an end, and that in Rishi Sunak we seem to have a prime minister who doesn't revel in scrapes and scandals, who doesn't have making headlines at the top of his to-do list. Now who might we be talking about?

One of his ministers told me that Sunak had "ended the Tory psychodrama with a careful reshuffle of all the talents and a focus on delivery", saying it was a sign of the recent turmoil that commentators see that as "boring". "It's actually serious government," they added.

Another of his MPs, who did not find a berth in government, had a less flattering assessment, saying: "He's managed to appoint to some of the dullest people in Parliament to ministerial jobs, so if anybody can succeed in being boring, it's some of these people." Ouch!

*  On this week's show: Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, and actors David Harewood and Zachary Quinto

*  Guests on the panel are former chancellor Philip Hammond, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and chair of Stonewall Iain Anderson

*  Watch live on BBC One and iPlayer at 09:00 on Sunday 30 October

*  Get live updates, reaction and analysis from 08:00 on the BBC News website

It is true that we are at the start of a very different era. From 2015 until last month at least one of our big political parties has been led by a deeply unconventional leader.

Jeremy Corbyn's time in office turned Labour upside down. Boris Johnson as the Tory boss provided a daily soap opera.

Much of the soundtrack to the last seven years has been noisy internal chaos for one - or sometimes both - of Labour and the Conservatives.

Sunak vs Starmer creates a different atmosphere altogether. The biggest beasts in our politics are now described by colleagues as "sensible" and "measured". They are both known by their teams to be extremely hard working and diligent.

The self-perpetuating Tory circus has gone, the ring master retired after the crowd didn't clamour for more. And as one government insider notes, both main party leaders "are keen to establish themselves for their competence rather than political pyrotechnics". But that is not the same as "boring" for several significant reasons.

Firstly, we are not living in a time when things are ticking over nicely and government can just trundle along. The choices the new prime minister has to make about the economy are huge.

And it can't have escaped your notice - with Jeremy Hunt's sober tones, or countless briefings to journalists about the scary size of the black hole in the public finances - that cuts are coming, even if they end up being less grim than the scariest warnings suggest.

We'll only know the likely result of those decisions when the chancellor gets to the despatch box on 17 November. We can be sure that it won't be pretty. But the decisions for Mr Sunak go way beyond the choices he has to make about the economy, and they are certainly not "boring".

With millions on waiting lists, social care creaking, the risk of blackouts this winter and climate change, choices have to be made fast on a vast range of issues, and those decisions will have massive consequences for us all.

And while Mr Sunak's approach on the economy is widely known, his broader instincts are less well understood.

The job is huge, according to another government source, who says: "We have to get five years' worth of work done in about two."

But will it be dull? They add: "It will be calmer and more stable, but to say Sunak is boring is wrong. He actually has quite an innovative way of looking at things so will shake things up, but in a well thought through way."

That's an optimistic way of looking at it. One Whitehall source describes him differently, as "the least experienced prime minister we have had in recent history". Additionally, as chancellor it was possible for him - as others before him - to stay out of sight for long periods of time.

Successive new prime ministers and their teams have started out with the intention of being less visible, popping up less, determined to concentrate on the job and their priorities rather than get caught up in frippery or spend time on events that don't match their agenda.

They want to avoid the surreal spectacle of Tony Blair once giving a view on the fortunes of fictional Coronation Street character, Deirdre Rachid. If you are lucky enough not to remember this, it really did happen, as this BBC story from the time shows.

But successive teams who have entered No 10 with that intention find out that in the real world, they can dictate and control far less than they hope. Life comes at them fast, 24 hours a day, from 360 degrees.

Mr Sunak has discovered already this week with his first visit, to a hospital.

There were planned images of him chatting to patients, showing empathy and giving a brief clip to broadcasters on the issues of the day - but it was memorable not because of that, but because a patient took him to task, wagging her finger at him for not paying nurses enough. That encounter was not boring.

And whether it's on health, the environment, welfare, foreign affairs or other issues, it is hard to know where the new prime minister's political reflexes will lie.

A Whitehall source who has worked alongside him says he "is sensible, but not a centrist", and he may surprise some even of his own supporters by erring to the right.

Politics is about principles, and we'd all want our leaders to be deeply serious about how they make decisions, but it is also about instinct.

The source, who has served successive prime ministers, wonders if his character will be well suited for the crucible of Downing Street.

"Boris came to reasonable decisions, but made them in a crazy way and didn't stick to them, Liz neither made the right decisions nor made them in a sensible way," they said.

"He [Sunak] will make them in a sensible way, and it will make a difference. But given the way he delves into detail, how will he cope with the span of the job? You can't do a spreadsheet on every issue when you are the prime minister."

And while he might be generally seen as sensible, Mr Sunak has already willingly walked into a political controversy that is far from dull.

He hired back Suella Braverman as home secretary just days after she had been fired for breaking the rules for ministers. She had used her personal email to send government documents to a colleague, and they also ended up with someone else by mistake.

Holding his carefully constructed government together prevents a huge challenge for the new leader, and it's simply not clear yet if he has the political ability to do that with long-term success. Could anyone?

The Conservatives concluded, less than a week ago, that after all the drama, Mr Sunak was their best option. The impulse to survive after the trauma of the Truss explosion led them to choose the candidate closest to being seen as a safe pair of hands.

With a smart team around him, a party exhausted by arguing with itself, and a personal reputation for being extremely capable and hardworking, that could turn out to be true.

But there is nothing remotely guaranteed about that coming to pass, nor is there any certainty that the Sunak premiership will be a success. And however much Conservatives might hope for dull stability, it certainly will not be boring for the rest of us to find out.

Watch: Rishi Sunak's first PMQs in the top job... in 64 seconds

Rishi Sunak says it is right he "focuses on the... pressing domestic challenges" the UK faces in its economy rather than got to COP27.


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