His competence is overrated but his rectitude offers a reprieve for Britain’s despoiled democracy
As a British Asian of the same generation, intense feelings overwhelm me when I see Rishi Sunak cross the door into 10 Downing Street. All that envy and bitterness will pass, though. The question then becomes what to expect from the youngest UK prime minister since Napoleonic times. There is much hope of a restoration of competence. There shouldn’t be. Yes, Sunak understood the folly of unfunded tax cuts at a time of fiscal and current account deficits. But that is not proof of a more general wisdom. This is still the man who subsidised people to dine out amid a pandemic with no vaccine in sight. He has crammed a lot of misjudgments into a short career. Among the prime ministers since the EU referendum of 2016, two voted Remain (Theresa May, Liz Truss) and one (Boris Johnson) embraced Leave with the tardiness of an opportunist. Britain is now led for the first time by someone who believed with real fervour that Brexit was a good idea. The lost trade, the forfeited fiscal receipts: he failed to anticipate these costs, or overrated the ease of making them up elsewhere. He does not even have the excuse of being a nostalgic. There was and is a coherent traditionalist case for Brexit. There was never a liberal or free-market one. How a man of modernist, pro-growth sensibilities came to believe otherwise is not just an academic mystery. It forces the question of what other eccentric choices he might make as head of government. Even the perception of competence is worth something, of course, in the form of lower borrowing costs for the UK. Just hope that bond investors don’t examine too deeply what their perception is based on. If his competence is overrated, why does Sunak’s rise feel such a relief? To answer that, it helps to recount the degeneration of public life in recent years. Britain is a lot closer to US-grade civic rot than it realises. Much of the governing party — MPs, not just grassroots — entertained the return of Boris Johnson. I can’t explain their keenness to abase themselves for a man who wouldn’t give them the shirt on his back if it was one of 10 he was wearing. I merely note it. I also note that Britain’s institutional erosion both pre- and postdates him. May, who has been allowed to pose as an elder stateswoman, ran a foul, judge-baiting premiership. She put some odd characters on the Downing Street payroll. Truss undermined the Treasury and the budget watchdog. And this mob is in power, remember, because the alternative was yet more feral. Labour was under investigation for anti-Semitism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission as recently as 2020. The present leader of the opposition asked the country to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister. It is in this context that Sunak’s elevation is welcome, even precious. His virtue isn’t competence. It is rectitude. If all he does for a couple of years is give institutions their due and obey the law (not that he is perfect at that), he will be a reprieve for British democracy. He reminds me of no one so much as the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan. He, too, was a laissez-faire true believer. He was a stilted performer in the way ideologues so often are. But he had the moral clarity — eventually, after years of vacillation — to see that his party had crossed into the dark side. Ryan’s answer was to take his sheepish leave of Washington. Sunak’s was to quit the Johnson cabinet and wait to live again. Neither is a profile in courage. But it is possible to think of things they wouldn’t be prepared to do or say, however expedient. Britain has a three-word constitution: “have good people”. There are few formal constraints on scoundrels and vandals. Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, whose services he is likely to retain as chancellor, won’t need constraining. The prime minister’s first contribution to Britain’s civic health will be an act of omission, not commission. There will be no general election anytime soon. Nor should there be. The UK system does not recognise the concept of a direct prime ministerial “mandate”. Those who demand one aren’t just hypocrites (how quiet they were when Gordon Brown passed three years as an unelected premier). They are encouraging a demagogic interpretation of representative parliamentary democracy. The world awaits Sunak’s fiscal plans, but the UK is a fading economy regardless. What it can still salvage is its democratic pride. For some Tories, the new prime minister is a company man: a creature of institutions, not a shaker-up of them. What was a slur is now the highest commendation.