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Super-Massive Black Hole

July 7th 2023

Sometimes, however unfairly, the past cannot be kept in the past. It rears its ugly head in the mirror - often at the moment it is least welcome. This is as true in politics as it is in life (sometimes of course, politics and life overlap rather messily - as one former Chancellor is discovering in the run-up to their forthcoming nuptials).

For Rishi Sunak, this habit of the unflushable unmentionable refusing to budge must feel especially unjust. He thinks of himself as a good, earnest and hard-working person. He is a go-getter, a high-achiever, a man who puts in the hours and expects to be rewarded for it. As a friend of the Prime Minister put it to the Sunday Times: “in his mind the deal he struck with the universe is not working out. He’s very clever, but he knows that with cleverness comes responsibility to graft ... But if you work hard and do the right thing, the universe will reward you — and in his mind at the moment the universe is not keeping its side of the bargain.”


However much work he does, Rishi Sunak is not breaking through the laws of political gravity. His team look at the constant reminders of the Conservative Party’s disastrous recent past and blame these for their political unpopularity. Chris Pincher’s suspension from the house - with the resulting probable by-election and the ghastly reminder of Johnson’s lack of judgement - is the latest scapegoat offered up by Sunak’s allies as an example how his predecessors’ booby traps are the reason he keeps tripping.

In part that’s true. But it is also Panglossian in its crude simplicity - the rot is so much deeper - and it lets Sunak himself off the hook.

First to the forces that govern his fate. Inflation is making us all poorer and so is the solution, higher interest rates. We are de facto at war but with neither the glory nor the sorts of sacrifices that might inspire us to rally round the flag. Everyone is on strike, parents are entertaining their kids at home in the sweltering heat, retirees are being put on three year waiting lists to get their knees replaced, and no-one can get anywhere even if they could afford to go. We are fed up and bummed out. Rishi Sunak knows that most of this isn’t his fault. And he is upset about the public’s propensity to blame him for it. But the fact is that a lot of it is his party’s fault, and he is the leader of his party (de jure, at least) so it’s no good whinging about it, really. Them’s the breaks, as a predecessor might have put it.

Second, to Rishi himself. He is an incredibly brittle politician. Watching him get tetchy with the liaison committee this week - visibly angry at being asked about his failings, seemingly incapable of (or just unwilling to) conjuring up answers that attempted to engage with his questioners - reminded one of why and how he managed to lose a leadership election to Liz Truss. The public gave him a fair shout - for a long time he was much, much more popular than his party. But his habit of reacting to any misstep by explaining a bit slower and a bit louder than it’s actually everyone else’s fault is very grating. There are privileges to being Prime Minister. But there are burdens too. And the public do not take kindly to condescension, particularly from someone who doesn’t seem quite up to whipping their own party into shape.

As Malcom In The Middle reminded us at the start of each episode “life is unfair”. It’s what you do with that unfairness, how you respond and how you seek to shape your own destiny and the public’s perception that counts. When life gives Rishi Sunak lemons he doesn’t make lemonade, he chews on them and pulls the appropriately surly face. That’s not a great look from any public figure. For half of one of Britain’s wealthiest couples, occupying this country’s top job, it is positively galling.

We have always accepted, in these notes, that something might turn-up. That’s certainly the last great hope of Sunak’s inner circle. But the issue may be this: even if the universe decides to deliver on its deal with Sunak and provide him some miraculous reward for all those long hours, it might be too late. He may already have turned the electorate off via his remarkable in-office sulk.