As Sunak tries to move on, he is haunted by former prime ministers
LONDON — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attempted to recharge Britain’s beleaguered government on Tuesday, reshuffling cabinet ministers and creating new departments to focus on science, technology and energy policy. But even as he moves forward, Mr Sunak is haunted by his two ousted predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, who are both mounting vocal rehabilitation campaigns, potentially at his expense.
Mr Sunak outlined his latest measures, just after celebrating his 100 days in office, as a way to achieve the goals he set himself last month, including halving inflation, reviving economic growth and reduce hospital wait times. He also appointed a reliable insider to chair the Conservative Party, after he was forced to fire former president Nadhim Zahawi over his personal tax affairs.
But Mr Sunak’s critics have fallen into predictable rows over ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’. The Conservative Party, they noted, remains mired behind the opposition Labor Party by double digits in the polls. The restructuring of the government bureaucracy could lead to months of political paralysis. And the drumbeat of bad news, from nationwide strikes to overcrowded emergency rooms, continues unrelieved.
If that’s not enough, he’s also harassed by Mr. Johnson and Ms. Truss. Both happily shrugged off any thought of quietly disappearing into the bench seats after their truncated stints in Downing Street. And both are defending their legacy in ways that could raise new hurdles for Mr. Sunak.
During a visit to Washington last week, Mr Johnson urged Britain and the United States to provide Ukraine with heavier weapons, including fighter jets – a step that Mr Sunak and the Biden administration have rejected. Political analysts expect him to interfere, and may even disrupt, Mr Sunak’s efforts to break the deadlock with the European Union over post-Brexit trade deals in Northern Ireland.
Ms Truss has resurfaced to defend her free market tax cuts which, despite their deeply destabilizing effect on sterling and mortgage rates, still have defenders in some corners of the Conservative Party.
“It’s obviously less than ideal for Rishi Sunak to have two former prime ministers hovering around him,” said Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent. “His back is against the wall and the clock is ticking.”
The cabinet reshuffle reflected Mr Sunak’s technocratic instincts, his economic focus and his sensitivity to criticism from champions of tax cuts – like Ms Truss – that he lacks a convincing strategy to revive economic growth.
But it also underscored Mr Sunak’s fragile grip on his party and his determination not to weaken it further by alienating his colleagues. Unlike many cabinet reshuffles, this one involved no demotions or dismissals. Having reluctantly dismissed Mr. Zahawi, he replaced him with Greg Hands, a competent politician short on charisma.
Although the sprawling trade department headed by Grant Shapps has been dismantled, it has been put in charge of a new ministry responsible for energy security and climate policy. Kemi Badenoch, a rising star on the party right who was international trade secretary, retained that portfolio while gaining responsibility for trade policy, a move intended to align trade strategy with UK business priorities.
Rather than sacrificing anyone, the reshuffle brought in a new minister, Lucy Frazer, taking charge of culture, media and sport.
In some ways, Mr Sunak’s most eye-catching appointment was that of Lee Anderson as the party’s vice-chairman. A combative and outspoken lawmaker who was a longtime member of the Labor Party before switching to the Conservatives, Mr Anderson rarely makes headlines.
More recently, he caused outrage by claiming that many people who go to food banks don’t need them. they just don’t have the cooking and budgeting skills to make their own affordable meals. Such dubious claims made Mr Anderson just one of many heroes on the right, ticking another box for Mr Sunak.
“The prime minister’s room to maneuver is limited economically, and it’s limited politically because he has factions within his party,” said Tony Travers, professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “Rebuilding the government and changing people’s roles is one of the things he can do, and he has done that.”
Yet Mr Johnson’s enduring popularity with the Conservative base underscores the watered down nature of Mr Sunak’s leadership. He lost a campaign for Prime Minister to Ms Truss this summer and is still blamed by many in the party for his role in ousting scandal-scarred Mr Johnson last July.
Ms Truss poses little direct risk to Mr Sunak, given how she died after just 49 days in office. But she has reappeared to publicly defend her planned tax cuts, saying they remain a recipe for boosting Britain’s economy. His argument could increase pressure on Mr Sunak to cut taxes, just months after his government mothballed Ms Truss’ scheme.
In a lengthy essay that appeared in the Sunday Telegraph over the weekend, Ms Truss blamed her downfall on virtually everything but herself.
“Basically, I haven’t had a realistic chance of implementing my policies through a very powerful economic establishment, coupled with a lack of political support,” she wrote. “I assumed on entering Downing Street that my mandate would be respected and accepted. How wrong I was.
Few political analysts think Mr. Sunak’s job is in imminent peril. But a disastrous performance by the Conservatives in May’s local elections could reignite rumors of another party coup.
Mr. Sunak avoided being drawn into debates with his predecessors. On Tuesday, his aides highlighted the political benefits of the new ministries. Mr. Sunak’s attraction to Silicon Valley and his desire to replicate it in Britain was evident in his creation of a department for science, innovation and technology.
Mr Shapps’ Energy Department seemed particularly timely, given Britain’s ordeal with soaring gas prices. It will seek to ensure the long-term security of energy supplies, aides said, which could protect the country from future spikes in inflation.
But while new ministries have logic behind them, reshuffles can distract officials, pushing them into turf wars over who does what. There are still lingering disruptions since the 2020 merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. In the case of the Department of Energy, critics said Mr Sunak was merely fixing a previous mistake.
“Seven years after the disastrous decision to abolish the Department of Energy, the Tories now admit they were wrong,” Labor climate change spokesman Ed Miliband said on Twitter.
Professor Travers said the reorganization of departments “says a lot about political fashion and government priorities”. But he added: “There is very little evidence that shifting responsibilities and changing the names of departments will inevitably lead to better government.”