Why pitifully weak Rishi Sunak deserves the defeat that is coming - Euan McColm

Ruthlessness is, I think, an unfairly maligned quality in politicians.This is perfectly understandable since it’s a characteristic often entwined with self-interest. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson perfectly embodies such a state of being. Here is a man who will sacrifice any friend or declared principle in the quest for personal advantage.

But politicians who we might generally consider more decent than Johnson will not fare well without sharing his ability to take brutal decisions that may be unpopular with allies.

Supporters of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon see her as an approachable woman-of-the-people, an empathetic figure who’s resolutely on their side. But Sturgeon did not create this image without having a core of steel. She tolerates no dissent in her ranks and will - as the MP Joanna Cherry, who has criticised the First Minster’s position on reforming the gender recognition act, could surely attest - freeze out anyone who dares step out of line.

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Amusingly, those in the Labour Party and the wider left who continue to support the crank Jeremy Corbyn have recently spent much of their time complaining their hero’s successor as Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has cynically betrayed his political inheritance.

Rishi Sunak during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons
Rishi Sunak during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons
Rishi Sunak during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

Starmer, they say, fooled them into thinking he shared Corbyn’s values (if we may describe them as such) and now he’s doing unspeakable things such as talking to business owners and reaching out to those who voted Tory in the last General Election.

I think it is probably correct to say that Starmer conned the Corbynistas. And quite right, too. He wanted their support to get over the line in the leadership contest and now - as is entirely sensible - he has taken the decision to ignore their bleating demands for far-left purity.

Starmer may struggle with the perception that he is a rather bland politician but the way in which he has cut adrift the Corbyn cultists shows he might just have the ruthlessness required to make a fist of being Prime Minister.

Someone who clearly lacks that necessary quality is the current occupant of 10 Downing Street.

When Rishi Sunak succeeded Liz Truss (ruthless, yes, but also, unfortunately, a crackpot) last year, he promised he’d lead a government of integrity in which the highest standards of behaviour would be upheld. The less than subtle subtext was “I’m not immoral like Johnson or mad like Truss”.

However, because he is pitifully weak, Sunak failed even to begin to deliver on that pledge. His immediate reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary, less than a week after she’d been forced to resign for leaking confidential documents snuffed out any flicker of a chance of him keeping his word.

Things on Sunak’s watch have got progressively worse. His deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, faces more bullying allegations than Gripper Stebson; Boris Johnson is mired in yet another scandal, this time over his recommendation that a man who had helped him secure an £800,000 loan - Richard Sharp - should be appointed chairman of the BBC; and Conservative party chairman Nadim Zahawi is under investigation by the PM’s standards watchdog after it emerged he’d paid a penalty to HMRC while he was chancellor. (Why we need an investigation before Sunak gets rid of Zahawi is not exactly clear. There is no question he was penalised by the very tax authority he was then overseeing.)

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Nostalgists may find their thoughts drifting to the final days of the Premiership of John Major in the 1990s. Sure, Labour’s Tony Blair’s personal ratings were so high that his victory in the 1997 general election was rarely in doubt but his prospects were not harmed by a stream of sleaze stories involving high-profile Tory MPs. Major appeared to have lost control of his party. He looked weak and ineffectual as headline after headline about this grasping colleague or that revolting candidate further damaged the Tory brand.

By the time Blair was in Downing Street, some perfectly sane Tories wondered whether their party might ever recover from the reputational damage it had suffered.

Just as Major seemed unable to get a grip on the Tories, so does Sunak. Each new scandal that engulfs a senior Conservative is unsurprising. We are at the stage where impropriety is to be expected of Tory MPs. Thats’s just what they’re like, isn’t it?

This may be desperately unfair on those Conservative MPs who play by the rules and adhere to the law but politics isn’t fair. It's a dirty game and their choices when it comes to tackling guilt by association don’t stretch beyond the like or lump binary.

If Sunak was possessed of the ruthlessness required of an effective political leader, his party might not be in quite so parlous a position. Labour might not regularly be enjoying 20 point poll leads.

The Prime Minister’s mistake is that he has prioritised party management over effective government.

Having won the top job, Sunak fears rocking the Conservative boat. Thus, he pulls his punches on Johnson, he retains Braverman and Raab, and he allows the Zahawi scandal to drag on, inflicting greater damage on his party with each day that passes.

A leader of strength would lay down the law to his party. He would remove problematic colleagues immediately and dare his members to defy his decision making. He would recognise that while failing to take swift and decisive action might placate the members of various Tory factions, it also adds to the likelihood that his party will be humiliated in the next general election.

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When Sunak became Prime Minister, he should have put the fear of God into any colleague who dared step out of line. Instead, he decided to indulge those he feared might challenge his authority.

Rishi Sunak deserves the defeat towards which he is now staggering.



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