This Halloween season there is certainly no shortage of things to make us afraid. The spectre of a zombified Boris Johnson leading the country for a second premiership might have been chased off, but anyone relaxing too much in the immediate lull afterwards has clearly not watched enough horror – the rest of us know there’s a jump scare on the way.
After a weekend of scrambling, bluster and desperate horse-trading, though, it became obvious that the Conservative Party is, for now at least, dancing to the tune of just one ringmaster. Ladies and gentlemen, gather round, come one come all and prepare yourselves for… the Rishi Horror Picture Show.
Just as the best horrors begin in something that looks like the regular world we all inhabit, the first days of Sunak’s premiership set out those false rays of hope. Conservative MPs promise to unify, hagiographic newspaper front pages greet the new leader, and he promises to reunite the party with a government “of the talents”.
But all too quickly the uncanny valley effect sets in, as a slight chill of disquiet that something is “off” about the apparent normality about us begins, and then mounts. A faint voice reminds us that it was only this summer that Rishi Sunak boasted of having taken money from “deprived inner-city areas” and delivered it instead to places like leafy Royal Tunbridge Wells.
A faint chime of memory might recollect that Sunak got more than a year into his chancellorship before a civil servant booking his US visa for a visit discovered his US Green Card holder status – a status that can only be maintained so long as you declare it is still your intention in the medium term to become a permanent US resident. It is quite something to do the finances for a country you claim to regard as a temporary residence (despite, of course, having been born here).
It’s more extraordinary still to have your spouse – with whom you share a household, and so share household finances – continuing to claim non-dom status while you’re in charge of the national purse strings, as Sunak of course did, eventually taking such affront to the line of questioning that his family moved out of Downing Street.
Presumably, they will move back in, and finally claim the larger No 11 flat – traditionally the chancellor’s, but in recent years generally claimed by the prime minister – meaning, ironically, it is the Sunaks who will now get to “enjoy” Carrie Johnson’s luxury Downing Street refit.
The topsy-turvy hall of mirrors vibe to the early days of the Sunak premiership continues apace. For perhaps the first time in the UK’s history, we have a prime minister who is on paper wealthier than the King – though in an arguably feminist twist, this is thanks primarily to the family wealth of his wife.
Other prime ministers might look forward to the luxuries of the PM’s grace and favour home, Chequers, which include a heated swimming pool – but Sunak is used to this, already having one of his own at his constituency home. The pool reportedly costs £14,000 a year to heat. The PM having a publicly owned and a privately owned swimming pool would be an interesting public-private partnership at the best of times – two pools during an energy and cost-of-living crisis is a bold approach to politics indeed. In the old days, using two Jaguars was enough to draw public notice – and that was when the economy was growing.
It can of course both look and be petty to focus on these kinds of personal issues at a time of mounting national horror. But the personal is the political, and this will be a brutal winter. The public finances were already in a parlous state, but the aftermath of the damage that Trussonomics inflicted has left them on the brink – as every politician has spouted over the last few weeks, “tough choices” will have to be made.
These will have to be made on wages, on spending and on taxes. These kinds of policies are difficult enough to push through at the best of times – and them repairing the needless damage of the seven-week PM is very much not that – but they are much harder when the man asking everyone to share the pain has a familial net worth of £700m. Given how little Sunak enjoys discussion of such matters, he is likely to find the winter ghastly.
Sunak has managed his second 2022 run for the leadership without a word to the public – no more slickly produced videos put out too soon after his resignation, or promises to the public, or even to Conservative members.
Defenders of this approach argue that his platform was scrutinised enough over the summer. That is a platform that doesn’t stand up to the lightest of knocks. First, the Sunak agenda kept changing – he performed U-turns nearly as often as Liz Truss, on tax cuts and other policies. Second, all of that was to no avail – Sunak was roundly rejected. While he got more MPs than any other candidate, he secured fewer than half, before netting less than 43% of members.
Sunak is becoming PM at an even scarier time than when the first context concluded. His party polling is the stuff of psephologists’ nightmares. Any patience that the bond markets – which buy up and trade UK government debt – had with the government is at an end. It is not clear whether or not the UK has enough energy to power its way through if the winter is cold. The NHS is underfunded and facing a huge winter demand crisis. A restive mood is gripping the nation and the omen of widespread strikes is closing in.
A blank piece of paper is a meagre shield against that many travails, especially when any sense of party unity is likely to prove to be a mirage. The Conservative Party, having become political cannibals, will not soon forget the taste of blood. Once the spoils of Rishi’s rise have been distributed, those who have been left out will be waiting to strike from the shadows.
The truth is that for most of us 2022 has been scary enough already – we hardly need anyone going to any extra effort to make things frightening. Halloween this year almost feels moot – why fear skeletons in the garden, when we know there are things scarier than dragons out there?
But ultimately, as the nights close in and the UK faces a long, cold winter of the soul, it seems there is one person with more reason to be afraid than any of the rest of us – none other than Rishi Sunak himself