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Monday, Mar 20, 2023

Rishi Sunak is haunted by ghosts of prime ministers past

Rishi Sunak is haunted by ghosts of prime ministers past

The return of Liz Truss to the political fray is a reminder of the British PM’s weakness within his party.

“Back to her old self again” was how one erstwhile colleague described Liz Truss, who made her return to the U.K.’s front pages at the weekend.

That’s exactly what Rishi Sunak and his allies were afraid of.

Truss, who spent 49 turbulent days in No. 10 Downing Street last year, is back. After a respectful period of 13 weeks’ silence, the U.K.’s shortest-serving prime minister exploded back onto the scene with a 4,000-word essay in the Sunday Telegraph complaining that her radical economic agenda was never given a “realistic chance.”

In her first interview since stepping down, broadcast Monday evening, she expanded on this, saying she encountered “system resistance” to her plans as PM and did not get “the level of political support required” to change prevailing attitudes.

While the reception for Truss’s relaunch has not been exactly rapturous — with much of the grumbling coming from within her own party — it still presents a genuine headache for her successor, Sunak, who must now deal with not one but two unruly former prime ministers jostling from the sidelines.

Boris Johnson is also out of a job, but is never far from the headlines. Recent engagements with the U.S. media and high-profile excursions to Kyiv have ensured his strident views on the situation in Ukraine remain well-aired, even as he racks up hundreds of thousands in fees from private speaking engagements around the world.

Wasting no time

Truss and Johnson have, typically, both opted for swifter and more vocal returns to frontline politics than many of their forerunners in the role.

“Most post-war prime ministers have been relatively lucky with their predecessors,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “They have tended to follow the lead of [interwar Conservative PM] Stanley Baldwin, who in 1937 promised: ‘Once I leave, I leave. I am not going to speak to the man on the bridge, and I am not going to spit on the deck.’”

Such an approach has never been universal. Ted Heath, PM from 1970-74, made no secret of his disdain for his successor as Tory leader Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher in turn “behaved appallingly” — in Bale’s words — to John Major, who replaced her in Downing Street in 1990 after she was forced from office.

But more recent Tory PMs have kept a respectful distance.

David Cameron quit parliament entirely after losing the EU referendum in 2016, and waited three years before publishing a memoir — reportedly in order to avoid “rocking the boat” during the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

And while Theresa May became an occasional liberal-centrist thorn in Boris Johnson’s side, she did so only after a series of careful, low-profile contributions in the House of Commons on subjects close to her heart, such as domestic abuse and rail services in her hometown of Maidenhead.

“You might expect to see former prime ministers be a tad more circumspect in the way they re-enter the political debate,” says Paul Harrison, former press secretary to May. “But then she [Truss] wasn’t a conventional prime minister in any sense of the word, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that she’s done something very unconventional.”

Truss’s rapid refresh has not met with rave reviews.

Paul Goodman, editor of influential grassroots website ConservativeHome, writes that “rather than concede, move on, and focus on the future, she denies, digs in and reimagines the past,” while Tory MP Richard Graham told Times Radio that Truss’ time in office “was a period that [people] would rather not really remember too clearly.”

One long-serving Conservative MP said “she only had herself to blame for her demise, and we are still clearing up some of the mess.” Another appraised her latest intervention simply with an exploding-head emoji.

Trussites forever

But despite Tory appeals for calm, the refusal of Truss and Johnson to lie low remains a serious worry for the man eventually chosen to lead the party after Truss crashed and burned and Johnson thought better of trying to stage a comeback.

Between them, the two ex-PMs have the ability to highlight two of Sunak’s big weaknesses.

While Truss may never live down the disastrous “mini-budget” of last September which sent the U.K. economy off the rails, her wider policy agenda still has a hold over a number of Conservative MPs who believe they have no hope of winning the election without it.

This was the rationale behind the formation last month of the Conservative Growth Group, a caucus of MPs who will carry the torch for the low-tax, deregulatory approach to government favored by Truss and who continue to complain Sunak has little imagination when it comes to supply-side reforms.

Simon Clarke, who was a Cabinet minister under Truss, insisted “she has thought long and hard” about why her approach failed and “posed important questions” about how the U.K. models economic growth in her Telegraph piece.

Other Conservatives have been advocating a reappraisal of the actions of the Bank of England in the period surrounding the mini-budget, arguing that Truss was unfairly blamed for a collapse in the bond market.

But Harrison doubts whether she may be the best advocate for the causes she represents. “There’s a question about whether it actually best serves her interests in pushing back against a strong prevailing understanding of what happened so soon after leaving office.”

Johnson, meanwhile — to his fans, at least — continues to symbolize the star quality and ballot box appeal which they fear Sunak lacks.

One government aide who has worked with both men said Johnson’s strength lay in his “undeniable charisma” and persuasive power, while Sunak, more prosaically, “was all about hard work.”

These apparent deficiencies feed into a fear among Sunak’s MPs that he is governing too tentatively and, as one ally put it recently, needs to rip off the “cashmere jumper.”

It’s been posited that British prime ministers swing back and forth between “jocks” and “nerds” — and nothing is more likely to underline Sunak’s nerdiness than a pair of recently-deposed jocks refusing to shut up.

Trouble ahead

Unluckily for Sunak, there are at least three big-ticket items coming up which will provide ample ground on which his nemeses can cause trouble.

One is the forthcoming budget — the government’s annual public spending plan, due March 15. Truss and Johnson are unlikely to get personally involved, but Truss loyalists will make a nuisance of themselves if Sunak’s approach is judged to offer the paucity of answers on growth they already fear.

Before that, Truss is expected to make her first public appearance outside the U.K. with a speech on Taiwan which could turn up the heat on Sunak over his approach to relations with China.

One person close to her confirmed China would be “a big thing” for her, and is expected to be a theme of her future parliamentary interventions.

Then there is the small matter of the Northern Ireland protocol, the thorniest unresolved aspect of the Brexit deal with Brussels where tortured negotiations appear to be reaching an endgame.

Sunak has been sitting with a draft version of a technical deal since last week, according to several people with knowledge of the matter, and is now girding his loins for the unenviable task of trying to get a compromise agreement past both his own party and hardline Northern Irish unionists.

A Whitehall official working on the protocol said Johnson “absolutely” had the power to detonate that process, and that “he should never be underestimated as an agent of chaos.”

One option touted by onlookers is for Sunak to attempt to assemble the former prime ministers and ask them to stand behind him on a matter of such huge national and international significance. But as things stand such a get-together is difficult to picture.

At the heart of Johnson and Truss’ actions seems to be an essential disquiet over the explosive manner of their departures.

They appear fated to follow in Thatcher’s footsteps, as Bale puts it — “not caring how much trouble they cause Sunak, because in their view, he should never have taken over from them in the first place.”


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