There’s a phrase I often used to hear when I lived in the US: "If you do what you’ve always done, then you’ll get what you’ve always got." I couldn’t understand that phrase because it simply isn’t true. If businesses like Kodak, Blockbuster or IBM do what they’ve always done, they soon disappear (as Blockbuster did). That’s because the world constantly changes. Businesses, even successful ones, reinvent themselves (like IBM and Kodak) or die.
It, therefore, seemed odd to me that until a few days ago there remained a strand within the British Conservative party that still wished to reinstall Boris Johnson as prime minister despite ... well, despite the fact that the scandal-magnet Mr Johnson has been a disaster for his party and his country. Finally, the Conservatives settled not on "doing what they’ve always done", but on Rishi Sunak.
That’s because unlike Mr Johnson and outgoing prime minister Liz Truss, Mr Sunak at least appears to be a grown-up. He works hard. He has a strong business background. He comes from an extremely rich family so you can be sure that – again unlike Mr Johnson – he will not spend a lot of time worrying about money and cosying up to rich (and at times unsuitable) friends. It’s also good news that we have as prime minister a person of colour whose family background reflects the diversity of Britain today.
True, Mr Sunak did attend one of those exclusive English public schools, and his privilege shines through in everything from the way he dresses to the car he drives. (He once pretended to drive a much more humble model borrowed from someone else.) Also true, Mr Sunak has risen through a Conservative party that is riddled with incompetents and remains delusional in its post Brexit in-fighting. But I wish him well, and hope he picks a team of technocrats rather than the party faithful and useless ideologues who littered the Johnson and Truss administrations.
Yet, it is notable that even within his own Conservative party there are those who do not wish Mr Sunak well. Some find it difficult to see his talents and focus – sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly – on his race. In one remarkable radio interview with (full disclosure) an excellent British presenter of Asian background, Sangita Myska, who is a former colleague and friend of mine, a caller insisted that Mr Sunak could not really understand "the English". The caller preferred Mr Johnson as in some way being more British. Mr Sunak was born in Britain. Mr Johnson was born in the US. Mr Sunak is not white. Mr Johnson is. You may wish to draw your own conclusions from these facts.
Mr Sunak also now inherits a disastrous economic and political situation. The Conservative party is riven by factions, stuck in the past, still insisting that Brexit has been (in Mr Johnson’s phrase) a "Titanic success". The Titanic, of course, sank when it hit the iceberg of reality. Post-Brexit Britain has done something similar. Mr Johnson’s style was to bluster about negotiating an "excellent" Brexit so Britain would "have our cake – and eat it". The reality is that there is no "cake". Instead, we have trade bottlenecks, new bureaucracies, and a British economy that is underperforming compared to other European countries.
The way we have ended up with our third prime minister in seven weeks and our fifth prime minister since the 2016 Brexit vote means – quite rightly – that the UK’s reputation for stable government has gone. Since 2016, the future of the UK has repeatedly been in the hands of a tiny self-selected group of people who happen to be members of the Conservative party.
They have tolerated Mr Johnson’s serial plotting and disloyalty to other leaders as well as his lying and dodgy dealings. Next month, Mr Johnson will hear many of his scandals and misjudgments reconsidered in a parliamentary investigation. Instead of returning to Downing Street, Mr Johnson – who has spent most of the past three months on holiday rather than doing any parliamentary work – will be forced to contemplate the results of his disgraceful behaviour, including his loss of two ethics advisers who found it impossible to work with him.
Mr Sunak, therefore, has the chance to change and rise above the Johnson years of serial plotting. Mr Johnson undermined his supposed friend, prime minister David Cameron, in 2016. In 2018, he undermined Mr Cameron’s successor, Theresa May. He even undermined himself due to his extraordinary ethical failures. Some conspiracy theorists believe he only supported Ms Truss because he saw how incompetent she was, and so when she inevitably failed he would have a chance at making a comeback.
In rejecting Mr Johnson, the Conservative party may finally have recognised that if they do what they’ve always done since Brexit, namely to give way to back-stairs plotters and ideologues, then they will not get what they have always got – power. They will, instead, face electoral oblivion, and deserve it. Mr Sunak needs to replace Mr Johnson’s crisis conservatism with competent conservatism. That means facing up to the reality of Brexit, and also the toxic legacy of Mr Johnson.