A minister who has admitted to using cocaine being sent out to announce a clampdown on laughing gas. Totally normal. A home secretary who can’t be trusted to stay on message. Totally normal. A government prepared to break international law by deporting refugees. Totally normal. An environment secretary permanently at war with herself and the farming community. Totally normal. A chancellor unbothered by a 4% hit to GDP from Brexit. Totally normal. A prime minister who finds all the above totally normal. Totally normal.
It’s sometimes easy to forget just how toxic the Conservative brand really is. How low the bar for normal politics has become. So when we come across a prime minister who appears to manage some of the basics – who gets a few things half-right without crashing the economy, lying through his teeth or starting a civil war in his own party – it’s tempting for some to invest him with superhuman powers. An alien from another world. When in reality he’s only doing what any country has a right to expect from a leader. Strip back the polls and even though Rishi Sunak’s own ratings are improving, those of his party are still through the floor. It turns out you can quite like him but reckon the Tories are out of time and ideas.
But Sunak is quite evidently enjoying his limited dose of popularity. When he first became prime minister, he appeared nervy and hesitant. As if he wasn’t sure he was going to last much more than a month. There was a precedent, after all. But now – who would have guessed that some attention to detail might prove to be useful? – he looks more at ease with himself. His managerial tech bro look is proving to be a good fit. For the first time in years we have a prime minister who can more or less be trusted not to shit themselves in public. Even if half of what he says is nonsense. Baby steps and all that.
For his second appearance before the liaison committee – the supergroup of select committee chairs – Rish! was all smiles. A man intensely relaxed at being intensely relaxed. As well he might have been. Because, with a few exceptions, it would be hard to have found a more docile bunch of questioners. Sunak would have had more demanding interrogations from his dog than he got at the committee.
Bernard Jenkin set the tone with some softball questions about Ukraine. Ones that would allow Rish! to sound statesmanlike without actually saying anything. You or I could have sounded convincing. Just repeat after Sunak that it was up to Ukraine to decide what it wanted. Easy.
Then we moved on to the economy. The Treasury select committee chair, Harriett Baldwin, went first. He was committed to halving inflation, reducing debt and growing the economy. How was it going? Pretty well, it turned out. Setting targets that were likely to happen anyway due to outside pressures could turn anyone into a genius. Though there was no need for complacency. He said complacently.
Next up was the health chair, Steve Brine. Perhaps lucky to still be health select committee chair after recent lobbying allegations. “You have a reputation for being a problem-solver,” he said, channelling his inner sycophant. He was not worthy to be in the same room as Rish!. How on earth did he manage to settle the nurses’ pay dispute? Er, let me tell you, Stevie Boy. He did what everyone predicted he would do. He offered them more money than was originally on the table. Only he did it several months later than he could have done. Brilliant!
And now maybe he would do the same thing for the junior doctors … Steady, said Sunak. He didn’t want to promise anything. You didn’t get a reputation for being a problem-solver by chasing headlines. You did it by making the easy things look hard. And he definitely wouldn’t be offering the doctors 35%. As if anyone had imagined he would. Nor could he say where the extra money to fund the pay rises would come from. So it was definitely coming from existing NHS budgets.
No one could even get too worked up about small boats. Caroline Nokes, Diana Johnson and Sarah Champion did their best to raise their game. To summon outrage at a government that was turning the UK into a failed state. But even their sternest words had no impact on Rish!.
It was right to give child refugees a hard time. Because if we were nice to them then adults would only be encouraged to have more of them in order to further their asylum claims. Cruel to be kind. And we wouldn’t be breaking international law even if we did because we could then change UK law to say we were in line with international law after all. Or something like that. It was all nonsense. But no one could be bothered to really make anything of it. This was a committee as performance politics. Meta. Sunak gave his best smile. It was hard being as compassionate as him.
The Northern Ireland chair, Simon Hoare, was determined to out-toady all his colleagues. You are a genius. A lifesaver. A god. What Sunak had achieved in the Windsor framework was beyond mere mortals. Had he not been in Northern Ireland he would have been first to vote for it in the lobbies. The Good Friday agreement had been saved. You’ve never heard a more pathetic plea for a peerage.
Not even Bill Cash could get exercised. Once he was a standard bearer for Eurosceptics but now he’s reduced to a mere irrelevance. Part of him must know the world has moved on. Sunak certainly does. This is his world now. And he is fashioning it in his own image. And almost no one on the committee appeared that bothered.