They are falling like ninepins, and the Tories have now given the weary people of Britain yet another prime minister. And what a catch: stupendously wealthy, youthful — the youngest in two centuries — and a lawbreaker. As chancellor of the Exchequer in the Boris Johnson government, he was fined for COVID-19 lockdown breaches during the “Partygate” scandal, despite telling parliament that he had not attended illegal gatherings.
The statement released in response to the fine was ice cool, belying the fact that he had become the first chancellor ever charged with an offence while in office. “I understand that for figures in public office, the rules must be applied stringently in order to maintain public confidence,” Sunak said. “I respect the decision that has been made and have paid the fine.” The outcome was always likely: not paying could have landed him in an even stickier situation.
Being sly with regulations is obviously something that runs in the family. Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, ran into some trouble earlier this year when attention was brought to her non-domiciled status in Britain. She owns a jaw-dropping £700 million in shares in the Indian IT giant Infosys, from which she received £11.6 million in dividend income last year.
Declaring one’s domicile to be in another country can be a fine money saver: in this case, £2.1 million a year. But Murty wanted to be generous and gracious — at least for her husband’s political ambitions. “I understand and appreciate the British sense of fairness and I do not wish my tax status to be a distraction for my husband or to affect my family,” she said.
Sunak’s coming to power is a perfect statement of the leader estranged and continentally distant from voters, a person evidently bored by his time as a banker and keen to make a showing in parliament. “In his technocratic aloofness,” George Eaton suggests, “Sunak resembles an IMF official poised to impose a ‘structural adjustment programme’ on a stricken developing world economy”. The analogy is not out of place, given what “Trussonomics” has done to Britain in a matter of weeks.
While Sunak distanced himself from his predecessor’s loopy variant of steroid-fed Reaganomics, the inner Thatcherite’s heart continued to beat to the rhythm of nostalgia. As Thatcher’s own chancellor, Nigel Lawson, said of Sunak, he was “the only candidate who understands Thatcherite economics”.
He is very much in favour of fiscal tightening and keeping public spending thin, and, like the “Iron Lady” he so adores, happy to tout tax rises if needed. Thatcher, it should be remembered, raised the Value Added Tax from 8% to 15% and imposed the infamous poll tax otherwise advertised as a “Community Charge”.
Sunak’s belief in redistribution is of a rather distasteful variety. As Labour had, in his ill-chosen words in a leaked video, “shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas”, it was incumbent on the Tories to undo it. “I managed to start changing the funding formulas to make sure areas like this are getting the funding they deserved.” The area in question was the rather well-heeled town of Tunbridge Wells, Kent.
During Sunak’s tenure and the “levelling up” programme of Johnson, the wealthiest parts of Britain received amounts of money up to 10 times more per capita than the poorest. Sajid Javid’s wealthy constituency of Bromsgrove in Worcestershire was earmarked to receive £15 million, or £148 a head. Eight local authorities counted as some of the poorest in Britain received less than £10 a head from levelling up funds.
His economic embrace of Brexit was filled with hubristic assessments, some of this evident in a report he wrote for the Centre for Policy Studies in 2016. “Brexit will provide the UK with new economic freedom, and the Government should take the opportunity to create Free ports across the nation,” he wrote. Such ports would “increase manufacturing output, create employment regionally where it is most needed, and promote trade”.
The report obsesses over the presence of 3,500 Free Trade Zones (FTZs) spread across the world, with the United States deserving a special mention: 250 FTZs “which employ 420,000 people and handle £750bn of merchandise”. Sunak offered airy predictions about what free ports would do to the unshackled British economy, including 86,000 jobs “if they were as successful as the US Foreign Trade Zone programme”.
Such a rarefied market world says little about civic duties and citizenship. It speaks volumes that Sunak expressed scepticism about lockdowns and has preferred to take climate change less seriously than others, even within his own party. The issue of whether planning permission is going to be given to opening Britain’s first coal mine in a generation — in Cumbria — has been dismissed by Sunak as a “local issue”.
Sunak had to be persuaded to change his mind to attend the United Nations Climate Conference (COP27) in Egypt. He rationalised his about-face on Twitter: “There is no long-term prosperity without action on climate change. There is no energy security without investing in renewables.” Green MP Caroline Lucas described it as a “screeching U-turn”.
The change of heart suggested a weakness to the Labour opposition. “The prime minister,” according to Labour climate policy spokesperson Ed Miliband, “has been shamed into going to COP27 by the torrent of disbelief that he would fail to turn up”. Miliband said that the only reason for making an appearance was “to avoid embarrassment, not to provide leadership”.
[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]