Rishi Sunak has been Prime Minister for six days, not even one full week, and already it seems an eternity. He inherited a political shambles and an economic disaster. Under both his immediate predecessors the government had been careering around like a dodgem car with no-one at the wheel. The Truss/Kwarteng “mini-budget” blew the wheels off an already unstable machine. The rights and wrongs of the political defenestration of the Premiership’s of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson will be debated for years and decades to come. What is not in doubt is the mess they left behind them.
What we know now however is that Boris Johnson was consistently lagging behind Kier Starmer in the polls. Liz Truss turned that into an historic and unprecedented polling deficit. In addition, and more seriously for the country, the financial markets had lost confidence in her and the government she led. The consequences for families and for businesses up and down the country were immediate and are real. The legacy of the Truss government will long outlive the time of its actual existence.
There maybe good debates about the role of the OBR and the role played by the Bank of England, about the impact of President Putin’s illegal and appalling assault on Ukraine, about the “excess” profits of energy companies, the role of the EU, and all the rest of it to be had. All that is fine but essentially irrelevant to the basic truth, that it was the torpedoing of the political credibility of the government’s economic policy by the then Chancellor’s statement in the House of Commons that led directly to the collapse in the markets. This in turn led swiftly to Conservative Members of Parliament removing for the second time in just a few weeks a sitting Prime Minister.
This is the cold reality of what Rishi Sunak has inherited and what he is now grappling with. It could hardly be a more serious political or economic situation for him and for the country. Were the Autumn Statement to fail to re-establish confidence in the government then it would almost certainly lead to the government falling – notwithstanding it’s majority. The stakes could hardly be higher.
In recent times when a new Prime Minister takes office it has become fashionable to talk about their “first one hundred days in office.” There is no good reason for this. It is an arbitrary number of days which bear no relevance to any meaningful timeline in British politics. It was a phrase President Kennedy used when he first took office and with the increasing and rather childish West Wing-isation of British politics it is a phrase that has stuck here. When Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister on 25 October he had only six days before the scheduled “fiscal event”, as it was then called. Wisely he bought himself a little more time by moving what is now called the Autumn Statement to 17 November – and very precious time it is too.
Much is made of Sunak holding an MBA. The political success rate of British politicians holding MBAs is not unchequered. Good process and efficient administration is, of course, important and we have had a notable lack of both at the top of government in recent years. Their return is very welcome. Politics though is as much about instinct as it is about process. Modern Prime Ministers have too often tended to try and bludgeon Parliament and other institutions they feel are obstructing them into submission.
This is both an unwise and, given the increasingly swift rate at which Prime Ministers are currently ejected from office, a not very effective way of proceeding. Foolish Prime Ministers allow themselves to be seduced into thinking a large Parliamentary majority is sufficient on its own for them to do what they want. Wise Prime Ministers know winning office is the beginning not the end of their work. Successful Prime Ministers know where all the gears are – not just the forward ones. Successful Prime Ministers are canny, fast round the pitch, do not allow themselves to become bogged down and know when to move on. Above all they have luck, often as a by-product of their own decisions. We know the Prime Minister was a successful student, had success in his business career and is lucky in love. We will soon know if he possesses these essential political qualities too.
There is perhaps a more apt JFK reference for Rishi Sunak. There is a very good film called Thirteen Days. It tells the story of the thirteen most intense days of the Cuban Missile crisis. Rishi Sunak is right to stay at his desk in Downing Street just now and ignore the calls to attend COP26. In years to come someone might well make a film called Seventeen Days in No 10. That is the time scale that Rishi Sunak now has to craft a budgetary statement that restores basic economic confidence at home and abroad in the British government. No matter how long or short a time he lives in 10 Downing Street, short of all out war, there will never be a more serious or consequential seventeen days in Rishi Sunak’s Premiership.