A famously frustrated Bill Clinton once explained the paradox of American politics like this: While the American people emotionally liked the Democratic Party — loving its nurturing focus on taking social care of the country — it still tended to vote for a colder, more distant, law-giving Republican Party. The Democrats were the “Mommy Party” and the GOP was the “Daddy Party.”
The American people might have yearned for a warm New Testament cuddle, but, when things went bump in the night and goblins came, instinctively they voted for Old Testament Republicans — the grown-ups of their day — to save them from the darkness. You might resent being told to eat your vegetables but you are secretly glad someone has the force of character to tell you to do the hard, necessary things in life.
Something very like this powerful dynamic is playing out in the high-drama surrounding the seemingly endless crisis swirling around Britain’s Conservative Party — historically perhaps the most successful political party in the modern world, though not recently.
Beset by an annoying, otherworldly self-regard for its own internal machinations, the Tories are on their fifth prime minister in six years — and this in the face of the pandemic, cost-of-living crisis, return of endemic inflation, and the war in Ukraine. In other words, international perils make this a time for grown-ups, even as the Conservatives have parochially behaved like children. It is little wonder that they find themselves fathoms behind the center-left Labour Party in the polls. The Tories have squandered their greatest asset and the secret to why they have been the natural governing party in the United Kingdom for much of the past two centuries: They are no longer seen as stern, yet capable, grown-ups.
Rishi Sunak on Tuesday became the 57th prime minister in British history, coming to power precisely to restore the Tories’ sullied grown-up reputation. A few years ago, I remember meeting him at a Tory Party function and he was everything he appears to be at a distance: steady, well-meaning, serious (if rather funny), talented and rather quiet. In other words, he seemed to me even then to be the polar opposite of the bombastic, carnivalesque, louche, strutting Boris Johnson. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it well: “Character is destiny.” Johnson as premier and Sunak as chancellor was never going to work well, and the record shows it did not.
Character invariably spills over into policymaking. Johnson was for what came to be known as “cakeism” — in that you can have your cake and eat it, too. In policy terms, this meant the magical thinking view that the UK could have a European-style safety net and pay only American-style taxes. While such an irresponsible view made Johnson popular with the Tory base for a time, a concerned Sunak fought a rear-guard action against this fiscal abomination. Johnson’s undoing for attending a series of Downing Street parties (and misleading the world about it) while draconian strictures were in place for the general public because of COVID was just another form of cakeism. The rules Johnson made were for the little people; they were never meant to apply to him.
The disastrous 45-day reign of Liz Truss followed, fueled (quite properly) by a basic critique of a British economy that is no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century. Decades of low productivity have left the UK with a low-growth, high-regulation undynamic economy, a Europe across the channel. Truss rightly wanted to take advantage of Brexit, using the regulatory freedom it allows to remake the UK as a Singapore-on-the-Thames: low-tax, low-regulation, high-trade and high-growth. All of this macroeconomic thinking was admirable and correct but, during the seemingly endless leadership campaign that followed Johnson’s defenestration, Truss fatally omitted to fill in the policy details lying behind her ambitious aspirations.
Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who skillfully used her spell as leader of the opposition to prepare the British public for radical changes she intended to make, Truss thrust them onto the British people with little warning. It proved to be her undoing. The markets, already spooked by the Bank of England’s derelict performance in taking its eye off the inflation ball, rebelled. Famously, Truss’s shelf-life as premier was shorter than that of a Tesco grocery store lettuce purchased by The Daily Star.
Because of all these self-inflicted wounds, Sunak comes to power with almost nothing left to lose. Upon winning the leadership, his Old Testament admonition to the death cult that has become the Tory Party could not have been more on point: “Unite or die.” In terms of foreign policy, look for the UK to continue its strong (almost worryingly neo-conservative) support of Ukraine in the face of Russian adventurism.
On the economic front, while entirely sharing Truss’s dream of the UK as a Singapore-on-the-Thames, Sunak disagrees with how to get there. First, Truss’s unfunded tax cuts will be shelved for the foreseeable future to steady markets worried about the profligacy of the British political elite. Second, cakeism is over; there will be significant spending cuts. Third, defense spending will hold steady, but probably will not be allowed to stratospherically rise from 2 percent to 3 percent as Truss had announced. Fourth, as a pro-Brexit leader, Sunak will look to make good on the promise of Britain’s hard-won freedom to cut trade deals with the portions of the world that are actually growing (India, the United States, the Anglosphere).
In other words, it’s time for Britain to eat its vegetables. It is a time for the revenge of the grown-ups. I have a sneaking suspicion that Bill Clinton will be proved right. Despite the very tall odds, look for Sunak to succeed in his new role.
This piece was originally published in The Hill