In the ongoing farce that is Britain’s Tory government, we now have our third Prime Minister in seven weeks — Rishi Sunak, the first Asian to hold the top job, but also the richest PM in British history, with a £730 million fortune via his marriage to Akshata Murty. The daughter of the Indian billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy, who founded the technology company Infosys, she has a 0.91% stake in the company, which constitutes most of the Sunak family’s wealth. Sunak himself was a banker from 2001 until his election in 2015, working first for Goldman Sachs, and then for a number of hedge funds.
Promoted to the role of Chancellor under Boris Johnson, Sunak is credited with successfully preventing a total meltdown of the economy during the Covid lockdowns, primarily through the furlough scheme for workers, although, to be honest, any Chancellor in place at the time would have had to do the same. Defeated by Liz Truss in the leadership campaign in the summer, he is now seen as a credible leader by the majority of Tory MPs who backed him over the last week — many, no doubt, pressurised to do so to prevent the choice of leader going back to the untrustworthy Party members who elected Truss — instead of the other contenders, Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson, who somehow thought that he could miraculously return from the political grave into which he had dug himself.
Nevertheless, the painful truth for Sunak is that no one — not even the 81,326 Tory Party members who voted for Liz Truss — voted for him, and it will be hard for him to claim any kind of popular mandate as a result. Hopefully, the calls for a General Election that increased throughout Liz Truss’s disastrous premiership will not fall away now that Truss has gone, because the only way for Sunak to genuinely claim any legitimacy is to ask the public to support him — and not merely to claim that the result of an election nearly three years ago, fought solely on Boris Johnson’s risible claim that he would ‘Get Brexit Done’, has any relevance.
After the chaos of Liz Truss’s brief tenure as PM, Sunak may appear more competent — not least because he repeatedly warned over the summer that Liz Truss’s tax cuts for the rich would be a disaster, and would specifically cause the markets to lose confidence in the government — but make no mistake: he is as doomed as his predecessors to preside over the UK’s continuing decline, because, like Johnson and Truss, and like all the second-rate politicians chosen for their dim-witted Cabinets, he is an intrinsic part of the folly that has gripped the Tory Party for the last six years and four months: the delusion that leaving the EU was a sensible thing to do, rather than the single biggest unprovoked act of national suicide in any of our lifetimes.
Brexit: the ever-present elephant in the room
A half-hour video by the FT, ‘The Brexit effect: how leaving the EU hit the UK’, released a week ago and already seen by 2.8 million people, is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the ongoing insanity of pretending that Boris Johnson ‘got Brexit done’, and that leaving the EU has provided us with any benefits whatsoever, but it is also noticeable that, in just the last few days, prominent Tories have spoken out against the taboo of challenging the fairy tale account of Brexit’s alleged success.
On Monday, billionaire banker and longtime Tory supporter Greg Hands, the founder and chair of the private equity firm Terra Firma, said that the economy was “frankly doomed,” and Britain would become “the sick man of Europe”, unless a Tory leader could be found who possesses “the intellectual capability and the authority to renegotiate Brexit”, and yesterday, as Sunak rook office, Jürgen Maier, the vice-chair of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, and a former CEO of Siemens UK, had an article published in the Guardian in which he urged Sunak and the government to stop lying about Brexit, and to “rejoin the single market and customs union.”
He described the lie that we “could replace the economic upside of being part of the most advanced free-trade zone in the world” as the Brexiteers’ “biggest lie of them all”, and explained, “This does not mean opening a debate about rejoining the EU. That ship sailed some time ago. But there is a new possibility. The EU has held out an olive branch: to join a grouping of European countries that don’t want to be part of the EU but do want to benefit from its single market and many collaborative bodies.”
The unforgivable appointment of the racist and authoritarian Suella Braverman as home secretary
In addition, although Sunak began his premiership on Tuesday by promising “integrity”, that promise has already been undermined by appointments that reek of favours for some of those who supported him; in particular, the dreadful re-appointment of the hysterical racist Suella Braverman — the daughter of immigrants — as home secretary, just six days after she resigned for breaking the ministerial code, after sharing confidential government information via her personal email. At the Tory Party conference earlier this month, she appalled listeners outside of the narrow racist and xenophobic crowd in the conference hall by gleefully declaring that it was her “dream” and “obsession” to successfully deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, the shameful policy introduced by her predecessor Priti Patel.
Braverman’s presence indicates that, on immigration, Sunak’s government will continue to persecute anyone daring to come to the UK, either as refugees, or as economic migrants in search of gainful employment. The ongoing Brexit debacle shows how short-sighted this is, and it scarcely seems credible that any progression can be made on alleviating our chronic shortage of workers by handing the policing of our borders to the vile Braverman.
As well as seeking to keep the UK isolated, friendless and alone, Braverman’s appointment is also alarming because it suggests that she will also press ahead with the monstrously anti-democratic provisions of the latest Public Order Bill, introduced by Priti Patel, which seeks to criminalise even the very thought of dissent. As George Monbiot explains in the Guardian today, under the bill, “anyone who has protested in the previous five years, or has encouraged other people to protest, can be forced to ‘submit to … being fitted with, or the installation of, any necessary apparatus’ to monitor their movements. In other words, if you attend or support any protest in which ‘serious disruption to two or more individuals or to an organisation’ occurs, you can be forced to wear an electronic tag.” As Monbiot adds, “Serious disruption” was redefined in Patel’s Police Crime and Sentencing Act “to include noise.”
Ongoing doubts regarding the Tories’ environmental awareness
Elsewhere, although it is a relief that the climate change denier Jacob Rees-Mogg has resigned, Sunak apparently has no room for Alok Sharma, the only truly environmentally conscious Tory minister, who was the President of COP26, the climate summit that took place in Glasgow last year, and who has taken his job — and its message — seriously.
Sharma, who, like Rees-Mogg, supported to return of the disgraced Boris Johnson as Prime Minister (perhaps because Johnson, for all his myriad faults, reportedly recognised the seriousness of the climate crisis when briefed by Sharma) will apparently only stay on until the COP27 summit, which begins in Egypt next month.
Another environmental blow is the move from health to the environment of the lamentable Thérèse Coffey, who, under Truss, aroused the ire of health professionals by suggesting that people should hand out antibiotics to their friends and family members, and who, as a junior minister in DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) managed to antagonise both the National Trust and the RSPB.
Both of those organisations have already been mobilising the support of their members (many of whom are, lest we forget, Tories) against Liz Truss’s enthusiasm for completely unregulated “investment zones” across the country, where workers’ rights, planning law and environmental protections would be torn up (a dream of her backers in the unaccountable far-right ‘libertarian’ lobbying groups based in Tufton Street), and it remains to be seen if Sunak ditches these plans.
Also of enormous concern is Truss’s similar, Tufton Street-backed enthusiasm for the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, introduced by Rees-Mogg, another Tufton Street puppet, and currently making its way through Parliament, which proposes, by December 2023, getting rid of 2,400 laws that are a legacy of our EU membership, and which, again, involves getting rid of workers’ rights and environmental protections, as well as fundamental health and safety protections. As with the establishment of “investment zones”, it remains to be seen if these shameful proposals — intended, in the absence of the UK having a written constitution, to allow the government to scrap all kinds of fundamental laws and protections without scrutiny — will be dropped.
On the plus side — if there is one — the presence in Sunak’s Cabinet of Remainer Jeremy Hunt, and Michael Gove, returning as the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who, despite his key role in the Vote Leave campaign, seems to have the intelligence to recognise that all is not rosy in Brexit’s “sunlit uplands”, suggests that, if Braverman can somehow be removed, grown-up discussions about the impact of Brexit might finally be allowed to permeate the isolationist stupidity that has consumed Tory ministers since 2016, and that has, fatally, divorced politics from common sense.
It’s a thin straw to cling to — and it won’t be offset by Hunt’s enthusiasm for austerity — but it may be the only glimmer of hope.
Please, no return to austerity
Austerity, however, will be the main battlefield on which Sunak’s government survives or fails with the public. While the Tories have spent the last four months engaged in their various leadership psychodramas — and the mainstream media have, in general, slavishly devoted themselves to every twist and turn of this ridiculous soap opera, the ‘cost of living’ crisis, involving rampant inflation, and out of control energy bills, is still pushing half of the country into destitution, and threatening a wipeout of businesses.
Truss’s only concession was a two-year cap on energy prices, which would have ensured that the average household’s energy bills would be £2,500 a year, but that plan was spiked by Jeremy Hunt when he took over as Chancellor from Kwasi Kwarteng, the architect, with Truss, of the doomed tax cuts ‘mini-budget’, and the cap is now only scheduled to last until next spring.
In addition, Hunt has also been suggesting that the only way to deal with the economic damage caused by the recklessness of Truss and Kwarteng is to inflict massive cuts on the country’s public finances, even though there is nothing left to cut after the devastation wreaked by David Cameron and George Osborne — with Hunt’s support — in the early years of what is now 12 years of misery inflicted by the Tories on the British people.
Sunak and his team are, of course, aware that the Tories’ popularity sank to its lowest level in living memory under Truss, with the Labour Party currently commanding a 36-point lead over the Tories, with Labour on 56% and the Tories on just 20%.
With Truss gone, Sunak can expect something of a bounce in Tory support, but there is no reason to suppose that it will be significant, without policies that genuinely tackle the ‘cost of living’ crisis, rather than just appeasing the markets by making the poor even poorer.
An urgent need for windfall taxes and tax rises for the rich
What is needed, very clearly, is, first of all, a windfall tax on the energy giants who have made huge unearned profits because of rising prices following the war in Ukraine. The EU announced a windfall tax at the end of September, which, along with a cap on the revenues of renewable energy and nuclear power companies … in response to the ‘unexpectedly large financial gains’ made in recent months, as a result of their profits being linked to the price of expensive gas and coal”, is expected to raise £123 billion.
A similar windfall tax for the UK would work out at around £20 billion, but there is no sign, as yet, that the government wants to pursue the energy giants, despite Shell’s outgoing CEO, Ben van Beurden, declaring just four weeks ago that a tax on energy giants’ profits was “inevitable” as a way of “protecting the poorest” people in society. Instead, under Truss, proposals were put forward by Rees-Mogg for a tax on renewables and nuclear power — accidental beneficiaries of a pricing system rigged in favour of fossil fuels — but not for the much bigger windfall tax.
Perhaps reason will prevail on energy costs, but it seems unlikely that the government will take other necessary steps to protect half the country from destitution. Brexit, of course, which has led to the loss 16% of trade from the UK to the EU, and 20% of trade from the EU to the UK, urgently needs addressing, but so too does a fundamental Tory Party shibboleth: the obsession with cutting taxes rather than raising them. As the organisation Tax Justice UK explained yesterday, “Rishi Sunak’s new government could raise up to £37bn to help pay for public services and the energy bills support scheme if it introduced a string of ‘wealth taxes’”, as the Guardiandescribed it.
As Tom Peters, Tax Justice UK’s head of advocacy, said, “Tax is about political choices. At a time when most people are being hit hard by the cost of living crisis it would be wrong to cut public services further. The wealthy have done really well financially in the last few years. The chancellor should protect public spending by taxing wealth properly.”
Another organisation, the UK Wealth Tax Commission, went even further last year, recommending that “a one-off 1% wealth tax on households with more than £1m, perhaps payable in instalments over five years, would generate £260bn” — enough to dig us out of a hole that is largely of the Tories’ own making.
But with Rishi Sunak married to a woman who, undoubtedly with his blessing, took advantage of the loopholes afforded to the super-rich by claiming “non dom” status, and not paying UK taxes on money earned abroad until that particular scandal was exposed (although she has since agreed to pay taxes, she has refused to give up her “non dom” status, despite very obviously living here), it may be unwise to expect that this particular PM will do anything to upset the one group he cares about above all — no, not the Asian community, whether rich or poor, for whom he is now supposed to be some kind of figurehead, but the rich and the super-rich who are, quite clearly, the only people he really cares about.
Can Labour wake up?
There’s an opening here for the Labour Party to not just sit back and watch as its current extraordinary lead in the polls shrink, but for that to happen Keir Starmer will need to define policies that benefit the majority of the country, who are suffering, and stop his obsession with being nothing more than a slightly less horrible version of the Tories, and miring himself in imaginary battlegrounds from which the public have already moved on.
To give just two examples, on Brexit, over half the country now believes that it was a mistake (52% against 35% supporting Brexit), but instead of embracing the opportunities for advocating for a return to the single market and freedom of movement, Starmer insists instead that he will “make Brexit work”, and on environmental protest, while 66% of respondents in recent polling declared their support for protestors’ actions, Starmer was, instead, bleating on about maximising prison sentences in an excruciating radio interview.
If Starmer doesn’t shape up, I fear that he will go down as the Labour leader who squandered the biggest electoral lead of our lifetimes — all because he couldn’t identify with the real people of the UK, and remained fixated on those with ‘aspirations’, on law and order, and on ‘populist’ anti-immigration sentiment that is both heartless and wrong, and that also no longer reflects the Brexit crisis that the whole country is currently facing, and will forever face until someone with courage can be found to challenge its toxic fantasies.