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Quantum Sunakology

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

In Rishi Sunak’s first Prime Minister’s Questions, a curious thing happened in the chamber. Rancorous cheering persistently broke out from the benches behind him, seemingly before he had answered the question posed to him. This seemed awfully rude, especially on his first time as PM. Why would his own party interrupt him before he’d said anything of substance? Of course, on rewatching, it became clear that his party were not rudely interrupting him - no, no - he had finished, and his responses found worthy of celebration. Oh dear. That’s rather more confusing.

Whilst Sunak has been swept into No. 10 to much jubilation from his colleagues, it is not immediately clear why. With no clear democratic mandate, nor a plan, he is defined politically by what he is not: he is no Boris Johnson, whose dipsomaniac charisma played well with the Red Wall and Tory faithful alike; and not his immediate predecessor, the fusion of the easy charm of a soiled urinal cake with the economic nous of a soiled urinal cake. Instead, he is negative space. He is a gap in the margin into which can be penciled whatever his colleagues desire - at once the Brexit messiah and the sensible wet; at once the level-headed technocrat and fiery populist; at once Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama. This is an invidious position, and clearly unsustainable - but it explains his performance in the Commons. To say anything at all is to alienate someone, and so his greatest strength is obscurity. Rishi Sunak is Schrodinger’s Prime Minister - only when this quantum superposition collapses, it may well take a government with it.

It is worth asking how he has found himself in such a situation. Employing poetic understatement, it would be fair to remark that the Tory party is a little divided. On one side are the paid-up Singapore-on-Thames libertarians and on the other the comparatively warm One Nation Osbornites. The points of contention are self-evident: do taxation and regulations merely need refining or abolishing? Should we approach the disadvantaged paternalistically or disregard them altogether? Was Brexit a matter of sovereignty, a means to radical supply-side reform, or an outright mistake? On these points the wings of the Tory party are radically diverging. Johnson filled this chasm (for, in spite of his faults, he was excellent at taking up space) and with his ouster it looks less bridgeable by the day. One may wonder why the Conservatives are one party at all. Utterly ideologically riven, their only unifying characteristic appears to be tactics.

'Quantum Sunakology' : DALL-E [2022] Rishi emerges from the market and party crash of the past few months.

Mr Sunak began his first answer to Keir Starmer amiably enough; graciously accepting his welcome and expressing a desire for ‘serious and grown-up’ debate. One would be forgiven for imagining the courteous and quaint manner of the mother of all parliaments was back. Unfortunately, this was a notion to be dispensed with as early as the end of his first answer. Suggesting that the Labour Party, yanked rightward under the stewardship of Sir Keir, is ‘soft on crime’ and in favour of ‘unlimited immigration’ seemed a little unfair - after all, on Monday, Keir Starmer had stopped just short of offering to violently disperse Just Stop Oil protests himself in an interview with Nick Ferrari - but perhaps this was just some rhetorical flourish, and not the setting of the tone. Then came the second question. We saw on Mr Sunak’s face flashes of entitled irritation as Starmer asked again about the appointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. The question was benign enough - had officials raised concerns about this appointment? Of course, the PM couldn’t answer - clearly they had, but to say yes would be embarrassing, and to say no a lie - and we weren’t quite at that point yet. And so he rose with an indignant snarl. Seemingly incensed by the temerity of the leader of HM Opposition to pose a tricky question, he fiddled some numbers around police numbers (there are at present around 2000 fewer than in 2010) and accused Starmer’s party of backing the ‘lunatic protesting fringe’ as Kemi Badenoch looked on adoringly. This is her trademark kind of rhetoric, you see, and she was gleeful at its use. Sunak continued in this vein, invoking the He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named-for-Islington-North, tied in with jibes about North London. It is clear to see the PM’’s strategy going forward. In the absence of any unifying vision, he will seek a war for his troops - and in the absence of any extant non-nuclear world conflict, a culture war will have to suffice.

This isn’t new for Rishi Sunak. When behind in the polls against Liz Truss, he took to inveighing against trans people and the nebulous idea of ‘woke’ to make up the gap, to some success. It is a potent animating force for right-wing demagogues worldwide, from America's midwestern Republican legislatures to Vladimir Putin. Whilst doubtlessly dangerous, the impact of the use of such tactics is best left to other commentators, who write compellingly and passionately on the topic. Instead, we will look at it through a more constrained eye - to its future in this government in its waning days.

Immediately prior to Truss’ resignation, Labour leads in voting intention polls were hitting the high thirties. Tired of this incapacitated government, voters were abandoning the Tory party in droves - and this incitement of culture war is intended as a remedy. Indeed, it plays well with certain kinds of voter, but its greater purpose is not in the seduction of those inclined to such beliefs. The anti-woke, never-Labour crowd are certainly excited by the red meat being thrown to them, but their support for the Tory party had not waned. The true cause of these ailing polling figures for the Tory party was the perception of them as fractured, chaotic, and possessed of no real solution to the problems facing the country down. That said, it will generate some slightly improved numbers for the Sunak government. A party unable to agree on ends can at least agree on the means, and as they gleefully participate in culture war tactics, their disunited image will heal somewhat along with their polling figures. They will take this as proof their strategy is paying off. This will be a tragic misdiagnosis. As people suffer the cost-of-living crisis compounded by rising mortgage rates, the paucity of answers held by this new government will be laid bare. Sunak - not the prototypical populist to begin with - will suffer the same fate as his predecessors, chewed up and spat out by an ideology and party which neither asks nor answers any meaningful questions about the future we face.

The good ship HMS Conservative, set on a fatal course by Captain Johnson and crashed into an iceberg by Captain Truss, is now rapidly sinking. Rishi Sunak has taken the helm, decided the ship is being weighed down by lifeboats, and begun to toss them all overboard. Electoral success for the left seems inevitable then, but complacency can not be the policy. Nor can it be suckered into the culture war - epithets like ‘Badenoch Powell’, ‘Cruella Braverman’ and ‘Rishi Rich’ are a little funny the first time, but Britain will not be rescued with #FBPE energy and jokes alone. A cohesive vision of a better Britain will be required, if not to win the next election then to snatch the United Kingdom away from the bleak course on which it is set. As for Sunak himself, the conclusion to be drawn of Schrodinger’s Prime Minister is the same as of Schrodinger's Cat. The idea of being two things at once persists until observed, and once observed by the public, Quantum Sunakology tells us he will be very, very dead indeed.

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