The Tories have successfully sabotaged, enraged or alienated every sector of society, including their base and look set to continue that trend
It might be tempting to call Rishi Sunak a placeholder prime minister, were it not abundantly clear that there is nothing left, at least in the current incarnation of the Conservative Party, to take his place. The country’s third PM in two months wobbles awkwardly amid the opposing factions of a political party chronically incapable of facing up to its own failures and internal inconsistencies.
Hard Brexiteers, traditional ‘fiscal Conservative’ austerity hawks, the evergreen free market obsessives, anti-migrant agitators, ‘red wall’ ex-Labour voters and, in general, everyone who for the past three years was promised an oncoming ‘levelling up’ – all these conflicting demands share one thing in common: a denial of the real situation facing the country.
‘Cutting the last of the fat from a society already on its knees’
Brexit will continue to be a dismal failure compounding the UK’s woes, and the Brexit factions will continue to demand that Sunak make it work. The anti-immigration faux-populists will make ever-more brutal, inhuman, and senseless demands.
Tories have no intention of throwing more than bare crumbs in the direction of ‘levelling up’, while the inevitable logic of austerity in fact compels turning 180 in the other direction – cutting the last of the fat from a society already on its knees. The energy and cost of living crises will continue to bite ever harder.
It is certain that Sunak and the self-defeated embarrassment of a party and political project which he represents are incapable of even recognising, let alone acknowledging, the nature and scale of the damage they have done to the UK in their 12 years in power.
Not only is there nothing left to cut – there is now, for the Tories, nowhere left to point, nowhere left to vent, no one left to blame. They have successfully sabotaged, enraged or (at the very least) alienated every sector of society, including their base (which incidentally voted to enact such sabotage on itself) in one way or another.
Enter Rishi Sunak. His bizarrely robotic first address as prime minister encapsulates this depressingly inevitable trajectory. The hand of the market – more spooked by the budget’s £2,500 household energy price cap than by its enthusiasm for trickle-down economics – moved with brutal efficiency to remove Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, those vaguely unseemly rogue elements.
‘An avatar of the ruling financial elite’
And in their place, it instated the only acceptable option left to a socio-economic orthodoxy which remains unquestioned by the Labour Party or any other plausible opposition. It installed a robotic cypher, avatar of the ruling financial elite who will continue, for as long as the laws of physics seem to permit it, to represent that elite only. Consider the reaction to Truss, then imagine, if you will, the market response to the sort of budget that it would take to begin to solve Britain’s poly-crisis.
From a private PR army attempting to make him look cool, to his family’s tax-evasion gyrations, Sunak is the logical choice for a political project neurotically fixated on covering a gaping hole where its identity should be.
Where Boris Johnson was ousted for going too left and Truss for going more Thatcher than Thatcher, Sunak is the tacit acknowledgement that real power lies with the markets, with the faceless hand of capital, which has decreed that the boat cannot be rocked, even as it continues to sink.
He is there to be a carapace of competence over the only acceptable remaining option to the elite – continued consolidation of their own power, which means continued decline for everyone else, to be managed in as slick a way as possible. For Sunak – and his finance, tech and VC friends – the slickness is all.
This is what the UK faces, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that Sunak and Jeremy Hunt will not simply get their way. There is some truth in the adage that history repeats first as tragedy and then as farce. No-one voted for Sunak, nor for renewed austerity, and the hard reality of a society and a people already emptied of its cupboards is likely to be an inconvenient obstacle to the sort of brutal, zombified policy that Hunt will try to ram through.
Only the people can turn things around
In the absence of a compelling alternative narrative from Labour or the mainstream media, however, the optimism of resistance must emerge elsewhere. It must come from the basic, physical, and human realities that Sunak and his banker friends’ obsession with ‘the economy’ refuse to countenance.
There are millions of hungry, cold, exhausted, and endangered people up and down the country, on whom any hope of a revival in the UK’s fortunes entirely depends. Any electoral progress must be based in a determined practical effort to help those people in their day-to-day lives and, as far as possible, help them realise their own power as the true constituents and rightful beneficiaries of ‘the economy’ – that grand and all-powerful abstraction.
No successful country boasts a defeated population, shut out of electoral decision-making, immiserated into hopelessness, incapable of comfortably covering the basic costs of being alive.
A new broad, popular politics must have this message at its heart. Rather than the cosplaying obedience of politicians like Sunak, it is the people who hold the power to change direction.
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