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25/10/2022. London, United Kingdom. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives at No10 Downing Street. 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Walker/ No 10 Downing Street
Rishi Sunak: culture warrior

Rishi Sunak: culture warrior

25/10/2022. London, United Kingdom. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrives at No10 Downing Street. 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Walker/ No 10 Downing Street

As he prepares to take deeply unpopular economic decisions, the new PM has put in place a team to fight a separate anti-wokery strategy. But he should beware the potential perils of such a plan

“Well, Paris is worth a mass – isn’t it?” Thus, over the weekend, did a member of Rishi Sunak’s new cabinet justify the prime minister’s reappointment of the embattled Suella Braverman as home secretary. Referring to Henry IV of France’s conversion to Catholicism in 1593 to tighten his grip on the throne is quite a lofty way of defending a decision that has already called into question the PM’s judgment and integrity. But you get the idea.

Braverman’s announcement eight days ago that she was supporting Sunak to succeed Liz Truss as Conservative leader marked the end of Boris Johnson’s demented dream of returning to Number 10. It symbolised definitively the shift of right-wing MPs away from the man who delivered the Tories an 80-seat majority in December 2019 and towards the man whose resignation as chancellor in July triggered the collapse of his regime. And – self-evidently – Braverman’s backing came with a price tag.

Yesterday’s papers were stuffed with briefings against the home secretary: allegations that she ignored legal advice at least three weeks ago that migrants were being detained for unlawfully long periods at the Manston processing centre in Ramsgate; that she held a series of secretive meetings with John Hayes, leader of the “anti-woke” Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs, in addition to leaking sensitive information to him (the proximate cause of her resignation on 19 October); and that she instructed officials to look into think tank proposals to relocate even “genuine refugees” to a “safe state other than the UK” (a potential breach of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention).

Michael Gove, back in the cabinet as levelling up secretary (the position from which he was sacked by Johnson on 6 July), was scrambled on yesterday’s media round to defend Braverman, whom he described as a “first-rate, front-rank politician”. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg confronted him with evidence that the home secretary had warned the recipient of an unauthorised email, sent from her personal account on 19 October including highly sensitive information, to “delete and ignore” it – hours before she reported the security breach. Gove did not resile from his support for Braverman.

Meanwhile, Robert Jenrick, the Minister of State for Immigration and a close ally of the PM, made a hasty visit to Manston yesterday to address what he described in a tweet as “this intolerable situation”. The site is designed to house 1,000 people, with a processing target of 24 hours for each migrant and a legal time limit of five days: at present, more than 3,000 are being held at the former RAF base, where cases of diphtheria, scabies and MRSA are now being reported. 

David Neal, the chief inspector of borders and immigration, told the Commons home affairs select committee last week that he was left “frankly speechless” by conditions at the facility. Already, the Home Office is spending £6.8 million a day on housing asylum seekers awaiting processing; that figure will now rise as more are relocated to hotel accommodation.

The Manston affair is a scandal of mismanagement and of indifference to basic humanitarian standards. At the Conservative conference in Birmingham earlier this month, Braverman said that “I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda [carrying refugees]. That’s my dream, it’s my obsession.” 

That squalid “dream” has already cost the UK £140 million, and yielded nothing other than a sense of shame among many in Whitehall and at Westminster, and some hefty legal bills. A pity that the home secretary was not more attentive to the nightmare fast developing in the Kentish hellhole now consuming her attention.

The question is: why did Sunak take back such an erratic and ideologically blinded politician to occupy one of the great offices of state? Because he needed her support to fend off Johnson’s entry to the leadership race, and the prospect of a second defeat in a deciding ballot by Conservative members (in September, Truss beat him with 81,326 votes to Sunak’s 60,399). And because he knows that – if he is to maintain even a semblance of party unity during his premiership – he must keep the Right on board.

Yet I do not think that is the full story. Outside Number 10 on Tuesday, the new PM made a point of claiming that the 2019 election mandate is “not the sole property of any one individual – it is a mandate that belongs to and unites all of us.”

This is constitutionally accurate, in the sense that the House of Commons acts as an electoral college that, between general elections, can in theory back any individual it pleases as the King’s first minister. But – as Sunak well knows – it is also political nonsense.

In modern politics, which has been quasi-presidential for at least forty years, a party’s electoral mandate is inextricably linked to the personality of the leader at its helm on polling day. It is simply absurd to deny that the 2019 victory was not, in large part, Johnson’s personal achievement. 

Yes, new prime ministers often take the reins mid-parliament – John Major, Gordon Brown, Theresa May, Johnson himself and Truss among them. But it is unprecedented in modern times for a third successive prime minister to claim custody of the same electoral mandate. Whatever else voters were deciding on 12 December 2019, it was not that the young Chief Secretary to the Treasury – as Sunak then was – should be prime minister in less than three years.

The point he was trying to make on Tuesday was different. He was saying: I know what it was that you liked about the Johnson offer, and I shall deliver a version of it, without all the mad rule-breaking, indifference to the law, and reckless conduct. “This government will have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level,” he said. “Trust is earned. And I will earn yours.” Not a hard message to decode after the mayhem of the past year.

All the same: which bits of the Johnson offer can Sunak deliver? The former PM triumphed electorally by positioning the Conservative Party firmly in what, in the post-2016 era, has become by far the most successful part of the political quadrant: culturally conservative, but inclined to fiscal generosity and public sector investment.

While never a small-state libertarian like Truss and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, Sunak is defined by his commitment to fiscal responsibility. His refusal to join in the “fairytale economics” of proposals for unfunded tax cuts that framed the July-September contest was a principled position that cost him dearly in political terms – but was entirely vindicated by the markets’ response to the Truss-Kwarteng plan. 

Now, installed in Number 10, he has even less room for fiscal manoeuvre. Before Jeremy Hunt, sensibly retained as chancellor by Sunak, delivers his autumn statement on 17 November, the two men must identify £40-50 billion in spending cuts or tax rises. 

Ministers promise that there will be no full-blown return to the austerity of the Cameron-Osborne years. The NHS budget has already been ring fenced. Both Sunak and Hunt know that they will face huge political problems if they save money by upgrading benefits in line with earnings rather than inflation.

Their daunting task is to tighten public spending without raising taxes or freezing thresholds to the point where ordinary families, already in the grip of the cost-of-living squeeze, find it impossible to pay the bills. Nor do they want to deter inward investment and strangle economic growth with a fiscal regime that makes post-Brexit Britain an unattractive prospect.

What is certain is that the PM has no cash to splash around, or to make “levelling up” much more than an aspiration that is mentioned dutifully in speeches; but not truly felt by voters in the neighbourhoods that opted for the Conservatives for the first time in 2019.

What, then, does he have for them – the electoral bloc crudely aggregated as the “Red Wall”? One Sunak ally puts it thus: “Eighteen months of economic stability will do a lot to pacify voters who are pretty disgusted by the shenanigans of the past year. It’s not as good as a new bridge or a railway line, but it should put us back ahead on the economy, which is going to be the battlefield of the election.”

Well, yes. But that is the politics of repair, rather than the politics of theatricality. And – as Sunak undoubtedly learned in his first three years in cabinet – we no longer live in a world where competence and credentials are enough. Politics is performance and spectacle at least as much as it is policy making and delivery.

Which brings us back to Braverman. Sunak cannot offer the punters the grands projets, shiny investment projects and fizzing infrastructure that Johnson so blithely promised. What he can signal, however, is firm cultural alignment with the values of his target electorate.

Look at the whole board. There, at the Home Office, is a secretary of state who is plainly out of her depth and, by any reasonable standard, a liability; but who absolutely understands the visceral, often unspoken sentiments of a great many voters about the small boats crisis, about the level of immigration (239,000 per annum), about the apparent certainty of human traffickers that the UK is, in the end, a “soft touch” destination.

Full disclosure: I am personally appalled by the Rwanda scheme, by the debased politicisation of asylum policy, by the notion that it is in any way consistent with British values to send Royal Navy vessels to intercept dinghies carrying some of the most vulnerable people on earth.

But I also have to accept that the government has not stuck with these plans by accident or in the face of overwhelming public opposition. As I was told by a Number 10 source in the last days of Johnson’s premiership: “Rwanda tests through the roof in private focus groups.” 

At the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Sunak has retained Michelle Donelan – a seasoned culture warrior, who used to work for the WWE wrestling franchise. As Higher and Further Education Minister, she has already taken on what she called “intolerant woke bullies” on campuses with legislation requiring universities and student unions to protect freedom of speech.

Attacking the “cultural vandalism” of previously revered books being “quietly scrubbed” from university reading lists because of their allegedly triggering content, Donelan has also called the BBC’s licence fee an “unfair tax… [ that] should be scrapped altogether”.

Stroll round the corner from Parliament Street to the Old Admiralty Building on Horse Guards Parade, where the international trade secretary, Kemi Badenoch, is now also fulfilling the role of Minister for Women and Equalities. She used her first Commons outing in the role on Wednesday to launch an attack on the CEO of an LGBT magazine.

Nobody in Whitehall seriously doubts that the fiercely intelligent Badenoch is the rising star of the cabinet (she was, after all, the first choice of the Tory members in the July-September race, though they were not given a chance to elect her). She has described herself as an “aid sceptic” (referring to international development), said that she does not “care about colonialism”, questioned the notion of “institutional racism” and taken a tough stance against trans activism.

Nor should we forget Oliver Dowden, one of Sunak’s closest friends, now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In his days as David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff, the impeccably amiable Dowden was seen as the consummate centrist. Yet, as culture secretary and then party chairman, he showed that he could be as sharp-fanged a culture warrior as anyone – successfully arguing that the BBC should keep the lyrics of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at the Last Night of the Proms in 2020; warning museums and heritage organisations to adopt a “retain and explain” default policy for controversial statues and monuments; even intervening in the matter of selection to the England cricket team when bowler Ollie Robinson was dropped in 2021 over historic racist tweets.

And what, finally, about Sunak himself? More, perhaps, than any prime minister in living memory, he regards politics as, in essence, no more than a branch of economics. He is an alumnus of Goldman Sachs, of Stanford Business School, of the world whose capital is Davos and whose daily scriptural reading is the Financial Times.

Yet this ingrained political character – visible since he became President of the Oxford University Investment Society rather than the Conservative Association or the Oxford Union – is matched by an even deeper-seated instinct: the will to win. Sunak is one of life’s head boys (he achieved this distinction at Winchester – an office known at the school as “Sen: Co: Prae:” – Senior Commoner Prefect). 

He has always been top, achieved highest marks in exams, strolled through selection processes, prevailed with a smile that suggests it would be rude if the cosmos delivered any other outcome. Only in March and April, with the terrible run of bad publicity that followed his dud Spring Statement, the revelations concerning his wife’s tax status, and the embarrassment of his own US green card, did he at last encounter true adversity – and it nearly finished him off. As I reported in this Slow Newscast, he came close to walking away from frontline politics altogether.

But he didn’t. Instead, he picked himself up off the canvas and accepted – however reluctantly – that he would have to broaden his repertoire. 

The Sunak of the July-September leadership contest was a populist politician to an extent that had never been seen before. In a speech in West Sussex on 30 July, he railed against the “brainwashing, the vandalism and the finger-pointing” of “woke nonsense”, pledging specifically to review the 2010 Equality Act which had, he said, become “a Trojan horse”. In Perth on 16 August, he promised  “to take on this lefty woke culture that seems to want to cancel our history, our values and our women.”

As for Rwanda: his only complaint was that it did not go far enough. In the Sunday Telegraph in July he revealed that he had a ten-point plan to make the scheme even more muscular and power-packed.

Does the PM like this stuff? I doubt it very much. But look at the team he has assembled and ask yourself what he is planning for the next election: a return to fiscal responsibility – painful, by definition – but also the bread and circuses of full-metal-jacket anti-wokery. 

Most of the latter strategy, you can bet, will be delegated to natural demagogues like Braverman and Badenoch. But Sunak himself will say and do what it takes; even if that involves making some dog-whistle speeches about migration and saying something about statues or pronouns that is demeaning to his office, but scores well in focus groups.

In his classic 1991 book on the subject, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, the American academic James Davison Hunter, foresaw that, in the modern era, “the true significance of electoral politics lies not in the selection of lawmakers and administrators, but in the opportunity given to the citizens of a community and nation to embrace or reject certain symbols of national life.” 

In the name of eventual victory, Sunak too has – probably holding his economist’s nose – accepted the same reality. Do not presume that his government will limit itself to fiscal interventions. For all the beatific smiles and promises of a return to “grown-up” politics, it undoubtedly has darker plans up its sleeve.

Such, indeed, has been the nature of all political contests since 2016. There are two sides to every culture war. But – before he pulls these levers – Sunak should pause and remember the stakes. 

Yesterday, a white man drove up to a Border Force jetty in Dover, where new arrivals are taken after being picked up in the Channel, and threw three petrol bombs attached to fireworks. Two people were injured. The assailant then killed himself at a petrol station nearby. 

His motives have yet to be revealed, and may never be fully understood. But – at the very least – this horrible attack illustrates the intensity of emotion and the potential for violence that swirls around questions such as migration. 

Culture wars are not just a matter of political strategy and calculation. They are a flint that can light the most lethal tinder. Before striking that flint, the new prime minister must beware that what looks like a vote-winning strategy in a Downing Street presentation can also, if mishandled, fan the flames of what James Baldwin unforgettably called the fire next time. Is that a risk he wants to take?

Slow Newscast

Downfall: Twenty days that did for Rishi Sunak

Matt d’Ancona tells the story of how Rishi Sunak, just a few months before he became PM, came close to walking away from frontline politics altogether.