This may be a little premature, for – to adapt a Rumsfeld-ism – plenty of stuff is still happening. Notably Suella Braverman and the forthcoming Budget. Even so, I think that we could be seeing the gradual emergence of a new, less febrile political mood. In Westminster and Whitehall, people are beginning to realise that there will not be an election next month. There will not even be a Tory leadership contest next month.
This might give Rishi Sunak time to put his stamp on events and assert control. Can he use it?
The new PM has begun with two bold and indeed hazardous strategic ploys. He must hope that they do not coalesce in the public mind. The first is to admit that he is having to correct his predecessors’ mistakes. The second is to emphasise that the immediate economic prospects are gloomy. It will be easy for Labour to claim that this is all the Tories’ fault.
There is an antidote to this: intellectual argument. Even if the Truss/Kwarteng Budget was somewhat too risky, this was easy to correct. The real problems were not caused by the 5p cut, but by Covid and Putin. In response, the government launched rescue operations of unprecedented magnitude. Over some years, millions of jobs were saved plus hundreds of thousands of small businesses. Hideous damage to living standards was averted. Sunak should point out that even if previous Tory leaders made some mistakes, their overall handling of the crises was commendable – and they were happy to throw public spending at the problems.
That brings us to the forthcoming Budget which may seek to claw back some of that expenditure. On this, however, the Sunak/Hunt team may have a pleasant surprise. While the Budget is hardly likely to be full of good news, it might not be as harsh as many people are fearing. Some economic indices seem more favourable than had been expected and there has been a return of market confidence.
There is another respect in which the Budget should work to the PM’s advantage. It will provide a song-sheet from which the entire Tory party could sing, if it were so minded.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
At present, there is something of a policy vacuum. There are also lots of Tory MPs suffering from ministerial withdrawal symptoms, especially as so many of them were thrust away from desks which they had barely got their feet under. Others, even longer out of office, are determined to ensure that the current lot do not lack their counsel, vouchsafed, of course, in public.
One notable example is Philip Hammond. In Chancellorian mode, he does not resemble Kwasi Kwarteng. Indeed, he makes Eeyore sound like Boris Johnson. In 2010, he was lined up to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but in coalition, the post had to go to a Lib Dem: ultimately Danny Alexander, who did surprisingly well, for a Liberal.
The now Lord Hammond would have had no difficulty in imposing austerity. According to your taste, he would have been superb at implementing discipline, or far too ready to believe that the rack and the thumbscrews were essential implements of government policy. He is certainly part of an honourable Tory tradition, particularly useful when it is necessary to remind hungry sheep about the price of grass.
There is bound to be an element of that in the forthcoming Budget. But a wise Prime Minister will realise the need to reassure the sheep that they are on a journey to the sunlit uplands, while wise ministers will never forget the need to temper the wind to the shorn lamb.
Where does this leave Labour? A few weeks ago, Labour MPs could hardly believe their good fortune. When it came to electoral prospects, even Tory MPs were beginning to lose hope. After all the chaos, could there really be a recovery? Today, although that thought may still strain credulity, it no longer seems incredible. Rishi Sunak is the Leader who could bring about a reset. Under him, it is no longer tired old Tories. Instead, stylish new Sunak is up against same-old Keir Starmer.
The three striking Labour Election victories since the War – 1945, 1964/66, 1997 – had points in common. In each case, there was momentum: moral, cultural, intellectual, personal. This offered drama and excitement. Attlee was different: not much drama there. But he had the prestige of wartime leadership and could draw on a public mood searching for a British new deal: the peacetime reward for wartime suffering. In all three cases, Labour could apparently offer big men and big themes. It only emerged later that Messrs Wilson and Blair could rival Boris Johnson in meretriciousness.
Now? Big men, big themes? Starmer? Donnez-moi un break, as Bojo would put it. (Although there is a danger that any kindly remark will make him think that he could be PM again, he was not entirely without his uses.)
All Sir Keir can do is claim that he would make a better job of it than the Tories. That is not a hopeless tactic. Nor is it an inspiring platform. In 1945, many voters believed that Churchill’s leadership, vital in war, was not appropriate for peace. In 1964, the Tories did seem tired: unfairly, but when has politics ever been fair? In the mid-90s, a large number of John Major’s MPs were determined to commit political suicide and eventually succeeded. Today, apart from the little matter of the economy, Rishi Sunak is in a much stronger position. For a start, his Parliamentary party does not have to resort to the Samaritans.
Self-evidently, the economy is the Schwerpunkt. There, the new PM must display strong stewardship reinforced by a convincing narrative – and a bit of luck would help. But battle is joined, and as some Labour people are uneasily aware, the Tories’ position is no longer hopeless.
Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at firstname.lastname@example.org