Rishi Sunak's election call may spell the end of the Tory reign of error

The UK Prime Minister's suit was soaked in the rain as he announced the date, but it is his legacy that is dampened

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announces the date for the general election at Downing Street in London on Wednesday. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

For months, the British Labour party has planned for a late spring or summer election. Some thought it would come in May, some told me June. It’s July. The Labour party is ready.

The Conservatives appear also ready to go – away. Personally, I always thought Rishi Sunak could not twist in the wind until November, but I feel almost uncomfortable about the fact that for the first time in my life, I pity a British Prime Minister.

I’ve met a lot of them, interviewed many of them and have a deep respect for most of them regardless of parties, policies or popularity. The two exceptions to my respect are Boris Johnson who was a serial liar and Liz Truss who seemed to me unfit to organise a children’s birthday party and certainly not the party of government for 68 million people.

But given the strength of character of the others – people of the stature of the indomitable Margaret Thatcher, Jim Callaghan, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – they all seemed to me to be, in different ways, and from different perspectives, huge and respected figures in public life.

It’s very strange therefore to say that I feel sorry for Mr Sunak. He’s not a bad person. He’s definitely not stupid, evil or useless. He’s not embarrassing like Mr Johnson or Ms Truss. But his time in Downing Street has been like a terrible party someone else needs to tidy up. His biggest moment of all, the one democratic decision that the British system leaves to the Prime Minister, sums him up – Shambles Sunak.

The British climate is vicious on badly planned decisions. And it fell – literally and metaphorically – on Sunak's shoulders

The big decision is when to call a general election. In his imagination, Mr Sunak perhaps planned to stride into Downing Street like the sheriff in an old-fashioned Hollywood western at High Noon calling out the bandits for a shoot-out – or in political terms, to make a defiant speech announcing a general election. But, as usual for Mr Sunak and his communications team, he messed it up. The result was a metaphor for his shambolic clueless administration.

Mr Sunak reached the climax of his speech just as the rain poured down. His fine and expensive grey suit was soaked. The optics were terrible, as he ploughed on in the rain. The British climate is vicious on badly planned decisions. And it fell – literally and metaphorically – on his shoulders.

In British politics you can be loved. You can be hated. Both can co-exist. But you cannot be laughed at or pitied. As the Sunak suit was soaked, some kind of musical heckler distracted from the Prime Minister’s sombre words by blasting out a loud rendition of Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream. How true.

I could not write a comedy script to compete with reality. I know all this is froth. I know that the real issues are the UK economy, the failure of public services, the problems with inflation, the Ukraine war, European security, the unfinished unmitigated disaster that is Brexit and the serious divisions in political life caused by everything from migration to culture wars. I know that all these issues (and more) are what we will be discussing endlessly over the next six or so weeks until the July 4 general election.

But I cannot help but think that the ludicrous sight – of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom making the speech that almost certainly marks the beginning of the end of his political career, while being drenched by a predictable rainstorm – is a metaphor for his administration and indeed for the failed Conservative party itself. Is it possible that party insiders cannot consider a weather forecast? The careless indifference to finding solutions while creating problems is why the Tories are doomed probably for a decade.

Voters see an issue in immigration. Conservatives therefore promise to send a few supposedly “illegal” migrants to Rwanda at extortionate cost. They know that the biggest political issues are the cost-of-living crisis, the failure of public services and a sense that the country is on the wrong track. Their solutions have included leaving the EU, threatening to leave the European Court of Human Rights, underfunding the army while a war rages in Europe, various culture war issues and underfunding public services so that appointments with doctors and dentists are hard to come by, prisons are overcrowded and … well, you do not want to rely on British trains right now.

Nevertheless, I do – sort of – feel sorry for Mr Sunak. He is the real-life endorsement of the business theory known as the Peter Principle. It goes: “The Peter Principle is an observation that the tendency in most organisational hierarchies, such as that of a corporation, is for every employee to rise in the hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level of respective incompetence.”

What happens in business happens in politics. I hope the UK’s July 4 election brings sunshine and calm weather, literally and metaphorically, and that Mr Sunak finds an occupation more suited to his talents. California, possibly.

Published: May 23, 2024, 10:30 AM