Are Rishi Sunak’s hands tied on policy even before he starts?

Latest British PM brings normality and rationality to role but faces deep challenges from Tory party on Europe and the protocol - and the spectre of Boris Johnson

Many British people, as well as the UK’s friends abroad, will breathe a collective, if qualified, sigh of relief that Rishi Sunak is set to become the next British prime minister. Even if they might prefer to see a Labour government at this stage, the threatened return of Boris Johnson would have guaranteed the continuation of the psychodrama that has paralysed UK politics for many years and undermined the country’s international influence and friendships.

How Sunak will perform as prime minster remains, of course, to be seen. However, for the first time in several years, there is a reasonable prospect of Britain having a PM who thinks, talks and behaves in a normal and rational way. There is unlikely to be a repeat of Johnson’s Brexit-fuelled assault on Britain’s democratic institutions and values. Likewise, there won’t be a repeat of Truss’s ideology-driven fooling around with the British economy. Sunak faces huge problems and may make mistakes. However, they are likely to reflect errors of objective judgment rather than the preconceived ideological fantasies of recent years. As Shakespeare might say, “for this relief much thanks”.

Warring factions

The domestic and international challenges facing Sunak are enormous. However, dealing with his own party will be at the heart of his problems. He will have to manage a Conservative Party that has been at war with itself for decades, the warring parties broadly defined by their attitudes to common sense and to Europe. Even if only to avoid electoral Armageddon, heartfelt pleas are now being made from all sides to unite behind the new prime minister. These may have some, at least short-term, effect. However, emotions run very deep. Despite nearly 60 ministers resigning from Johnson’s government because of his serial improprieties, Sunak is held responsible by many for Johnson’s demise.

Then there is the issue of Johnson’s own future. As we might say in our vernacular, he hasn’t gone away you know. Many have focused on one phrase in his statement on Sunday indicating his withdrawal from the race against Sunak: “This is simply not the right time.” This confirmed Johnson’s continued intention to make a comeback and deliberately echoes his last phrase from the dispatch box as prime minister: “Hasta la vista, baby.” However, another sentence in his Sunday statement also seems significant: “I believe I am well-placed to deliver a Conservative victory in 2024.″ He is smart enough to have used a different formulation if he did not wish to signal to his supporters that he retains the ambition to return to power before the next election.


There is also the vital question of the extent to which Sunak’s need to retain the support of the competing factions of the Conservative Party will tie his hands on policy.

Glorious isolation

Importantly, there seems to be a growing awareness in the UK of the need to find some way of moving away from general hostility to the European Union and from Johnson’s unnecessarily hard Brexit. Britain’s economic interests and international influence require this. Truss’s attendance at the first meeting of the European Political Community was a step in the right direction. The precarious state of the British economy and the consequent need to reassure the markets point towards a more sensible approach to the UK’s neighbours, both in policy terms and in the rhetoric used. Sunak presumably knows this. As chancellor, he worked comfortably with treasury officials who provide wise advice. However, there remains an influential and potentially decisive minority in the Conservative Party who wake up in the morning fulminating about the EU and go to bed dreaming about the UK sailing off into the glorious isolation that they call “going global”.

The Northern Ireland protocol will continue to pose a very tricky problem for Sunak. Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, fresh from his apparent road to Damascus conversion on relations with Ireland, said recently that Eurosceptics in his party “will implode the government” if current policy on the protocol is not continued. This may not be quite as bad as it sounds since the actual current UK government policy is to prioritise seeking an agreement with the EU. The ongoing talks behind closed doors, requiring flexibility and compromise on both sides, seem to have been going well. However, Baker’s comments are a reminder of the potential damage that Tory fundamentalists could do in this and other areas. Sunak will be very aware that a breakdown in negotiations on the protocol and a failure to implement it in a reasonable way would lead eventually to a trade confrontation with the EU. As he seeks to restore trust in the UK’s economic fundamentals, he will know that nothing could be more damaging.

Friends of the UK will sincerely wish the new British prime minister well.