Home / Politics / Rishi Sunak’s hapless government

Evelyn Waugh, a satirist of pre-war England and of the careless aristocrats who ran it, would have had a field day with the modern Conservative Party. Sometimes it feels as though he already has. Take the resemblance between Rishi Sunak, Britain’s current prime minister, and Paul Pennyfeather, the hapless protagonist of “Decline and Fall", Waugh’s debut novel.

Pennyfeather is an earnest and unworldly theology student at Oxford, who returns to the fictional setting of Scone College one evening just as the Bollinger Club, an aristocratic drinking society, is embarking on a night of mayhem. Pennyfeather is stripped of his trousers and runs the length of the quadrangle. He is sent down the next day for indecency. From there, things only get worse.

Mr Sunak is no failure. All his life he has been top of the class, from Winchester to Oxford to Stanford and the City, putting scarcely a foot wrong nor a nose out of joint. Civil servants remark on his ability to swallow briefing notes whole. But much of his agenda—reducing inflation, tackling NHS waiting times and improving maths teaching—is inoffensively sensible. He is accident-prone. And he is surrounded by colleagues whose decisions cause him harm.

The past few days have underscored this Pennyfeatherish pattern. On January 20th Mr Sunak received a second “fixed penalty notice" from the police, a feat without precedent in high office, for forgetting to wear a seat belt while filming a peppy video clip in his limousine. The first of these small fines came when Mr Sunak was chancellor and attended a birthday gathering for Boris Johnson in Downing Street in violation of covid-19 regulations. He was, Paul-like, caught up in the celebrations after arriving early for a scheduled meeting.

Although Mr Sunak came to office promising to restore trust to government, the prime minister appears unable to escape the Bollingeresque chaos that routinely surrounds his party. The biggest current scandal surrounds Nadhim Zahawi, briefly Mr Sunak’s successor as chancellor, whom he appointed chairman of the Conservative Party.

On January 21st Mr Zahawi, who had a successful career as a businessman before entering Parliament, admitted to having reached a settlement with the authorities over previously unpaid tax. Mr Zahawi said that the tax authority had found him to be “careless and not deliberate", tax-law terminology that Waugh would have thoroughly enjoyed. Mr Sunak has asked his ethics adviser, Sir Laurie Magnus, to investigate; it is not clear that Mr Sunak has the political capital simply to fire him.

The broken glass left behind by his predecessor is still causing trouble, too. On January 22nd the Sunday Times reported that Richard Sharp, the chairman of the BBC, was involved in brokering an undisclosed loan of up to £800,000 ($990,000) for Mr Johnson while he was prime minister, and shortly before Mr Johnson recommended his appointment to the broadcaster. Mr Sharp has denied arranging any financing. Mr Sunak has insisted the appointment was “rigorous", but Mr Sharp has referred himself to the BBC for an internal review and William Shawcross, the commissioner for public appointments, is also looking into how he came to get the job.

Mr Sunak’s arrival in Downing Street has brought a steadiness to government but it has not precipitated a recovery in Tory polling. The party appears stuck around 20 points behind Labour. Voters do not seem to loathe Mr Sunak; like the character he resembles, there is little to loathe. Yet his inability to bring his party to heel leaves him at risk of appearing weak and, worse, unlucky.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com."

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