A new week and a new Tory PM and government. Rishi Sunak has become the fifth Tory PM in six years, the third in two months and the fourth to arrive in Downing Street without a popular mandate due to Tory Party internal infighting. This is history and a watershed moment: Rishi Sunak is the first Asian heritage PM of the UK which is quite an achievement given the backstory of the Tory Party and large parts of society.
There is another precedent. This is the first occasion the UK has changed PMs twice in a parliament in peacetime. The previous time this happened was again at the behest of the Tories, during national and existential crises even more foreboding than the present. This was the 1935-45 parliament when Stanley Baldwin led the Tories under a 'National' banner to victory in 1935, was replaced by Neville Chamberlain in 1937, who was then forced to resign and was replaced by Winston Churchill in May 1940.
Sunak is also the youngest PM at 42 years and 166 days, since Lord Liverpool (Robert Jenkinson) became PM in 1812 at the age of 42 years and one day. Liverpool was a vicious Tory authoritarian who, as the UK faced war with the USA and Napoleonic Wars with France, brutally suppressed civil liberties. Whatever the current strand of Tory authoritarianism, there can be little chance they will return to such attitudes.
Sunak represents the acceleration of political change and advancement – having only been elected a MP in 2015. Sunak's seven years and five months is the second shortest period between gaining election as MP and becoming PM, and is only beaten by William Pitt the Younger at two years 11 months (PM 1804-06).
With all this, the backdrop to Rishi Sunak's premiership and Tory government is grim, not aided by the self-destruction of Liz Truss's seven weeks in Downing Street, Brexit and the cumulative mistakes and direction of 12 years of Tory rule.
First, there is the question of leadership: overall direction, making decisions, communicating and convincing the public. Truss was a disaster in all of these. It is a damning indictment of the UK political classes that, in an age where presentation skills are core, we are so bereft of decent speakers in UK politics.
Sunak is clearly a lot more competent than Truss, but that is a low bar. He is hugely privileged, the wealthiest man ever to be PM and Chancellor, and on some accounts has been estimated to be richer than Charles III. Second, from the type of leadership follows the kind of government that Sunak will lead. It will be one hemmed in by past Tory mistakes, divisions and infighting in the party, the dark economic situation and state of public finances.
For all the endless adaptability of the Tory brand, escaping their own past mistakes will be challenging. Liz Truss openly trashed the record of the past 12 years of Tory government. Sunak will try to close the door on such candour, but it will be difficult to completely reset things as if none of that criticism happened.
The party of low growth
Third, informing the nature of government will be the direction and evolution of Toryism. The short, disastrous age of Trussonomics has discredited the mantra of 'trickle-down economics'. Yet such is the vice-like grip of right-wing ideological dogma and zombie neoliberalism in sections of the Tory Party and what passes for think-tank land, that this perspective is not going anywhere soon.
Tory obsessions with low tax, minimal state, government and regulation is a quasi-religious faith which exists independently of facts and evidence. It talks about economic growth but, 40 years since Thatcherism was omnipotent, the results of their counter-revolution are inarguable: lower growth, lower living standards and prosperity, greater inequality with the emergence of an unapologetic super-rich, and with millions in poverty.
Tories like to present themselves effortlessly as the party of economic growth and prosperity, but UK growth has been lower post-1979 than the 1945-79 era. In the 13 years of New Labour it was 2.5% per year, whereas under the Tories since 2010 it has been 1.6% per year. Successive Tory governments – the 12 years since 2010, the 18 of 1979-97; the four of Ted Heath from 1970-74 – were all characterised by low growth. You have to go back to the Tory governments of the 1950s and Harold Macmillan, premier from 1957-63, to find the last Tory PM who presided over sustained economic growth. You would not know such a lamentable Tory record from the self-regarding mantra of the party.
Fourth, and most critically for the Tories, is the electoral dimension. Can the party renew itself in office as it has done so many times in the past, such as the 1950s and 1980s? Or will 12 years in government and the cumulative mistakes and misgovernance catch up, with voters showing it the door?
The average of polls on the last full day of Liz Truss's premiership was Labour on 53% and the Tories on 21%: an average Labour lead of 32%, which is historically a huge lead for Labour.
As Professor John Curtice points out 'Every previous government that presided over a fiscal or financial crisis has been ejected at the next election'. In this, Tory toxicity and the tarnishing of their reputation for competence and economic stability will limit Tory popularity. Sunak also starts off extremely unpopular: at a net minus 28%, with a mere 36% of voters having a favourable opinion of him and 64% unfavourable according to YouGov.
This is the best of a bad lot: Penny Mordaunt being on a net minus 32% and Boris Johnson net minus 40%: the two non-contenders in the Tory leadership contest that never was. All of these were not in the uncharted waters of Liz Truss who at the end was on a net minus 70%; and had a mere 7% of voters viewing her favourably – a lower rating than Prince Andrew.
Is Rishi Sunak the new Alec Douglas-Home?
So the Tories have problems. They have crashed the economy and battered many of the support systems which hold society together and look after citizens. But from this low point, it is perhaps true that, relatively, 'things can only get better' – without that promising a golden future for the Tories and UK.
Sunak may not enjoy an electoral honeymoon in the traditional meaning of the term, but he could see Tory fortunes revive a bit from where Liz Truss dragged them down. Numerous challenges will await him electorally. Can Sunak remake the 2019 Tory coalition of Boris Johnson and Brexit or was this a one-off? And if he cannot, is it possible for the Tories to achieve any kind of serious winning position when they have alienated parts of the middle class who have traditionally voted Tory?
One reading of Sunak's premiership is that the rationale of it electorally is similar to Alec Douglas Home in 1963-64. He came to office after the Tories had been in office for 12 years and were experiencing economic problems, along with Tory infighting, sleaze and corruption. Labour, then under the young Harold Wilson, had huge leads over the Tories, but Home's steadying of the ship slashed that lead so that, in October 1964, Wilson won by the narrowest margin in votes and seats. Many Tories think that is the most realistic hope of a Sunak premiership: appeal to the base, reassure people and markets, and lose narrowly in 2024 to place the Tories to come back in the future.
Finally, a major factor in all of the above electoral calculations is the nature of Labour's support and new found appeal. The Labour Party has only rarely in its history enjoyed the kind of stratospheric ratings it has enjoyed in recent weeks – two of those previous occasions being the last days of Thatcher in 1990 and Tony Blair's New Labour opposition of 1994-97. The second of these strategically reset the political weather and positioned itself as a government in waiting, creating the expectation which led to Labour's 1997 landslide victory. The first example of Labour under Neil Kinnock saw the party's poll leads vanish when Thatcher fell and the arrival of John Major saw the two main parties on a level-pegging up until the 1992 election which the Tories won.
This is clearly not a 1994-97 moment yet. Labour is not a government in waiting; their senior figures, messages, policies and ideas do not dominate the political agenda. But nor might it default to a 1990-92 example with the Tories replacement of one unpopular leader with a new managerial one allowing them to take their irons out the fire. This time the problems and Tory misgovernance might be far too deeply embedded.
In all of this, the choices of Rishi Sunak and the Tory government will impact all of the above. Is it possible that a less toxic, poisonous Toryism can emerge? A lot of commentary has already been spent on Sunak as a 'unifier' and force for 'stability' but in many places this is just a yearning for a quieter life. In places like the BBC and sections of the establishment, there's a desire for a post-ideological politics.
The latter is not possible in the world we live in and unachievable with the current Tory Party, its mix of ideologies of the right and its numerous different ideological hang-ups.
For Rishi Sunak to succeed, he will have to balance and please opposing interests: the zealots and obsessives of the European Research Group who pine after an unachievable, pure Brexit whatever the cost, those who want to recast immigration as a threat to 'the British way of life', and those who want a more competent, compassionate conservatism, while still dishing out the brutal medicine of another dose of Tory austerity.
There seems little space in this for a politics which remakes Toryism from its present strange brew or addresses the deep-seated problems of the UK. But desperate though Toryism is now, it might still be possible that the Tories squeak home to a fifth election victory in a row. That looks unlikely for now, but never underestimate the Tories.
If they can yet again escape responsibility for their systemic mistakes and remain in office, it would indeed say something grim about the state of Britain, its politics and our atrophied democracy.