Rishi Sunak Has Brought Calm, But A Storm Is Brewing
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech during a reception for world leaders at Buckingham Palace (Alamy)
In Parliament this week, people joked that there was something weird and rather unfamiliar in the air: calm.
The week got off to an eventful start as allegations surrounding Home Secretary Suella Braverman's handling of small boat crossings put her under huge pressure to resign. The questions facing the Home Office have far from gone away.
It then took a somewhat surreal turn when former health secretary Matt Hancock lost the Tory whip after declaring that he would be a contestant on this year's I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here.
But after months of chaos that saw the Conservative party implode and two prime ministers fall, and everything else in between, Rishi Sunak's arrival to 10 Downing Street has seemingly brought about a period of relative stability that feels like a novelty to people working in Westminster.
That being said, it may not last long.
“There's calm at the moment because Rishi hasn’t actually announced anything," one former Tory aide told PoliticsHome heading into the weekend. "The honeymoon ends on 17 November.”
As polling guru Sir John Curtice set out this week, Sunak entered No 10 last month a pretty popular politician – far more popular than the Conservative party that he leads, its brand severely damaged by the partygate scandal and Liz Truss's calamitous mini-Budget.
This, Curtice said, was primarily down to Sunak's perceived economic competence, with recent polling showing that he is more trusted than Keir Starmer to run the public finances, despite Labour's huge leads over the Conservatives when it comes to voting intention.
Sunak has sought to hammer home his message of fiscal responsibility as he and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt prepare to deliver the highly-anticipated Autumn Statement on 17 November. "Economy, economy, economy" is how an ex-No 10 official described the new Prime Minister's first 11 days in office.
But it is the statement later this month that poses the biggest threat to the calm.
Sunak and Hunt have warned that they will have to make difficult decisions in an attempt to plug the nation's £35bn fiscal black hole as they prepare to anounce tax hikes and spending cuts that will upset not just opposition parties but some Tory MPs, too.
"He played it smart by giving different factions big ministerial roles but that means a higher risk of resignations. He’s brought a lot of threats from the policy side into his government," said a Tory party source.
Mel Stride, who Sunak appointed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is regarded as one example of this.
Stride in his previous capacity as chair of the Work and Pensions Committee called for benefits to be raised in line with inflation, which the Prime Minister has not committed to doing. Asked by the SNP's Ian Blackford whether he would do so in week's Prime Minister's Questions, Sunak said the government would "have fairness and compassion at the heart of everything we do".
Andrew Mitchell, the new Development Minister, is another. The MP for Sutton Coldfield has led calls from the Conservative back benches for the government to return aid spending to 0.7 per cent of GDP – another highly-charged issue on which Sunak must make a decision.
Ahead of that statement in 12 days' time, there are question marks over virtually every major policy decision facing Sunak, with his press secretary saying on Wednesday that the pledges he set out in the contest to replace Boris Johnson may not see the light of day.
They said Sunak was "definitely committed to the sentiment" of those promises but would have to consider "what is deliverable and what is possible" in this economic climate, adding “those were pledges that were made a few months ago and the context is somewhat different”.
“We're looking at all of them and considering across the board whether now is the right time to take them forward and we are engaging with relevant stakeholders," they said. "He needs to be speaking to secretaries of state who are relevant to each of those campaign pledges before making a decision."
The same is true for the Conservative party's 2019 general election manifesto on which Sunak was re-elected an MP. The new Prime Minister is committed to delivering the "promise" of that document, but not necessarily the specific policies within it, his press secretary said.
Polling expert Curtice warned that while Sunak currently enjoys a reputation for economic competence among voters, cuts to public spending would be an unpopular move.
“One of the problems the government faces compared with 1992 and 2008 is that there isn’t much fat in public expenditure and in the post-Covid environment, public services are under very severe strain," he said.
"It’s much more difficult to deal with a fiscal deficit through public services because the public mood is not one that is looking for fiscal consolidation via cutting public services in a way that was certainly true in 2008.”
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