It is remarkable that Rishi Suna has risen to a high position in British politics. Just seven weeks ago Liz Truss was soundly beaten in the Conservative party leadership race. Today, having emerged swiftly from the ruins of his short first term in office after emerging victorious in the leadership contest, Charles III is only a watcher of King Charles III away from Downing Street.
The man who served as Boris Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer for two-and-a-half years, when he resigned and brought down Johnson’s government, now faces the unenviable task of rallying a shaken nation after Truss’ disastrous tenure.
He will do so, presumably, by implementing the economic plan he outlined in his failed leadership bid earlier this year. Sunak criticized Truss’ plans to cut taxes and finance everyday spending through borrowing, saying it would cause economic disaster.
He was proved right when the Truss government implemented its plans in a “mini-budget”, which sent the pound to its lowest level in decades and collapsed bond prices, soared borrowing costs and drove pension funds into insolvency.
As Sunak also predicted, rising interest rates spurred mortgage foreclosures, and lenders sought to pull their products off the market, dashing the hopes of many homeowners almost overnight.
Britain’s international reputation had taken a hit before Truss took office. The endless scandals that ultimately forced Johnson from office, as well as repeated threats to break international law over the Brexit deal he personally negotiated with the European Union, did not endear the UK to world leaders.
This is not to say that the UK is unimportant on a global scale. The government’s support for Ukraine, for example Britain – and Johnson in particular – has won praise from other Western leaders.
Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote in Politico on Monday: “Britain has been the leading foreign power to support Ukraine. In the triumvirate of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, London was at the forefront of political decision and leadership.”
Sunak’s adherence can be directly attributed to the chaos of the past few months. He is seen as a safe pair of hands, having won widespread praise for his handling of the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic, supporting businesses and citizens with massive government spending programs that saved many lives. His job is now clear: To bring peace.
Suna has unfortunately inherited a political party that has been tearing itself apart in recent years. The Conservative Party of 2022 is defined by the partisanship and divided loyalties that made Johnson and Truss ungovernable.
The party is divided along far more lines than left and right, but Sunak will have the most difficulty with the Brexiteer populist side of the party that worshiped Johnson.
“The reality is, the hard-right Brexiteer elements probably didn’t back anyone because they know there’s a clash with the new prime minister over Brexit,” Salma Shah, a former Conservative councilor, told CNN. “One of Sunak’s top priorities will be negotiating the Northern Ireland Protocol (the disputed part of the post-Brexit deal). If it doesn’t start their way, they can turn around.”
Sunak may dismiss or appease these people, but it could mean having to swallow a large piece of humble pie.
“He can try to neutralize the people of that wing of the party, who will not forgive Boris ‘betrayal’ or his fiscal cuts, by appointing a cabinet that appeases them. Potentially, that means swallowing his pride and finding something for Boris and Liz Truss to do,” Shah added.
If he doesn’t, Johnson could cause Suna trouble from the bench if he’s looking for revenge.
“I think he won’t put it in government and that means it could cause problems in the backbenches. I think they have to leave the seat and hope that they’re going to make money,” said Queen Mary University politics professor Tim Bale.
Party management is something that may be out of Sunak’s hands for the foreseeable future. What is firmly in his gift, however, is economic policy and dealing with international partners.
“He is someone who has a lot of experience at the world level outside of politics and as chancellor he also deals with world-class personalities. He is a verbal communicator and knows what he is talking about when it comes to economics. So I think there is every chance that he will be welcomed by the international community, not only if he fixes the economy, but also UK politics,” added Bale.
For Sunak, in an ideal world it would bring economic stability, and with it, political stability. But long-time observers of British politics will know that the two do not always go hand in hand.
“They will have to set policies because of Truss’s small budget, which will be politically unpopular with different groups for different reasons,” said Vicky Pryce, former joint head of the UK government’s Economic Service.
That, Pryce said, could mean austerity to balance the books, overturning Truss’s idea to remove hefty taxes on energy companies and caps on bankers’ bonuses. “He has to balance policies that might anger Conservative MPs with policies that might turn the public against him.”
For their part, Conservative MPs and advisers are relieved, outraged, worried and in some cases defeated. Some believe the public will appreciate a little respite from the political chaos. Some are beside themselves that the man who took down Johnson got his way. Some believe Sunak will be too soft on Brexit. Some people think the next election is already lost.
In theory there are at least two years left before the next general election. That’s more than enough time for Suna to steady the ship and get the conservative’s dire poll ratings back to being more competitive. But he has to take his party with him.
And if the last few weeks go by, the new prime minister could become just another Conservative leader, forced to spend more time managing his party’s internal politics than dealing with the pressing problems facing his country.