Rishi Sunak cannot become a statesman if he remains a Brexiter


A friend who has always shared my distrust of Boris Johnson said to me recently that he had at least hoped our prime minister would “grow into the job”.

Alas, as even former supporters – not least those who made the historic mistake of electing him leader – acknowledge, Johnson has not grown into the job. Day by day, he has grown out of it.

Life for the prime minister has until recently been a series of japes. As PG Wodehouse wrote in Hot Water (which I recommend as splendid light relief from the daily horrors of Covid and Brexit): “If it is true that the Hour produces the Man, it is also true that it remorselessly reveals the wash-out.”

Governing a country is no jape. Johnson has already been found out, and his two most prominent cabinet colleagues, Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove, are what is known in the trade as “on manoeuvres”.

Gove, to my mind, is so steeped in the blood of Brexit – it was going to be painless, a doddle – that he has lost all credibility as a leadership rival. He now spends his time saying it is not going to be painless, least of all for those Brexit burghers of Kent who, remarkably, did not seem to realise that they would be in the frontline of the disruption to transport that will inevitably follow our leaving the single market, deal or nor deal.

Michael Gove, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, leaving a coffee shop while wearing a mask.
Michael Gove, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
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Sunak, by contrast, is flavour of the month with both the Tory party and a large section of the media. He is in a fascinating position: widely thought of as a rightwing chancellor who finds himself popular for what he is in theory opposed to: doling out public money – although even then he can’t please everybody, and there are some rumblings of discontent. But then, as students of his career know, Sunak is what is known as a trader. (For younger readers I should emphasise that, in the old days, “trading” referred to dealing in real goods and commodities, goods that mattered, not just in money.)

The City of London, where Sunak earned his spurs, is good at trading in money, and a healthy financial sector is vital for the workings of the “real” economy; unfortunately one of the many casualties of this pointless exercise in Brexit looks like being the pre-eminence of the City in European markets.

Sunak is also a Brexiter. He has, we are told, been a Brexiter since the age of 18 – ie, since before the word Brexit was coined. I hope that at some stage, under the influence of his Treasury officials, he will come to his senses. Meanwhile, however, he has most of the economics profession on his side in taking the St Augustine approach to the public finances: budget balance, but not yet – and perhaps not for 30 years.

If there is one thing that matters in the economy now it is employment. But it is no good warning the nation, as Sunak does, that unemployment is going to rise dramatically. The government must do even more about it than it is doing now. There are huge unused resources that need to be employed.

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Inflation is not the problem. Why, my old friend Gordon Brown, the chancellor who granted the Bank of England independence in setting interest rates, recently revised his original approach. He now favours the brief of the US Federal Reserve, in stipulating that “maximum employment” should be given equal weight to control of inflation in the Bank’s remit.

And, after a recent chance meeting, I have the permission of yet another old friend, Mervyn (Lord) King, to quote him as saying we need fiscal expansion to get out of this depression, not talk of tax increases. This is the very same former governor of the Bank who, to my mind, made a serious error in advising the coalition government of 2010 onwards to embark on a policy of austerity when the economy was only just emerging from the horrors of the 2008 banking crisis.

One item on the agenda that is not calculated to assist the British economy’s emergence from the epidemic-enforced depression is – guess what – going ahead with Brexit.

A recent poll tells us that 50% of the population think Brexit is a mistake, and only 39% support it. I know democracies should not neglect the interests of minorities, but this is ridiculous.

The fact of the matter is that the Brexiters misled those who voted with them when saying how easy it would be. However, people can be stubborn and reluctant to admit that they might have been wrong.

But back to our current prime minister. When he regards his chancellor, he probably alters that famous quote from Julius Caesar, and thinks to himself: “Yond Sunak has a lean and hungry look.”

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To my mind, Sunak will rank as a statesman only if he acknowledges that Brexit is a mistake of historic proportions, and every effort should be made to contain the damage.



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