When Rishi Sunak became prime minister his central promise was that he would unite the country, restore trust and bring back economic stability.
Being better than the chaotic governments of Liz Truss and Boris Johnson was not a very high bar to set himself. Uniting the country and restoring trust is proving rather more of a challenge.
It is hard to deliver reliable leadership when you are surrounded by people with some very daft ideological obsessions who dominate much of the thinking of your political party. It is even harder to do so when you share many of those obsessions.
The country is desperately in need of well run reliable public services – these are hard to deliver if you are ideologically committed to the concept that the best way to get things done is free market economics.
The real reason our public services are at breaking point
The reason we no longer have a universal affordable dental service in the UK isn’t that public sector workers are greedy and incompetent. It is that a determination to introduce privatisation has reached such a pitch that children in Yorkshire are screaming with pain from toothache and there is no NHS dentist that will take them on in their area.
The reason it takes so long to get an appointment to see a doctor who doesn’t know you and is working to a twelve-minute time slot under relentless pressure is not that General Practitioners are greedy selfish people who love to down tools and go on strike. It is because the primary care system has deliberately been transformed into a privatised money-making exercise where large chains of “service providers” vie to cut costs and extract the most surplus.
The reason our public transport system is an overpriced mess is not because the workers in that industry gain pleasure from going on strike and losing income. It is because we have a confusion of privatised companies who are allowed to pocket any money they make from running services but are allowed to walk away from delivering on any contracts that lose them money.
When the water companies were privatised they were supposed to bring fresh money and fresh energy to bear on the challenge of modernising Britain’s ageing sewage and clean water systems. Instead, the new owners loaded huge quantities of debt on companies and used it to pay out excessive dividends. Confident in the knowledge that their customers had absolutely no choice other than to pay their bills the companies were hollowed out, investment was neglected, and sewage poured into our rivers and even onto our streets.
Clinging on to a failed ideology
Despite all those failures, Sunak has held firm to the theory that light touch regulation and more privatisation is what Britain needs. Instead of clamping down on the excesses that have taken place in so called freeports like Teesside he is insistent on extending the model and putting more communities at risk of being ripped off instead of receiving reliable long term investment.
This would be bad enough if Sunak’s naïve faith in a failed ideology of privatisation was all that there was to worry about. But it isn’t. At the heart of Sunak’s economic strategy is Brexit. Sunak isn’t a late and reluctant convert to the idea that the best way to manage the British economy is to cut it off from easy access to its largest economic market. He was an early and enthusiastic advocate of the daft idea.
It is hard to revive an economy by striking imaginative new trade deals around the globe when the facts keep demonstrating that far flung economies aren’t remotely interested in giving a weak and isolated Britain a trade deal that brings it significant advantages.
The deal he tried to strike with Canada allowed Canadian farmers to sell products soaked in chemicals onto British markets where it is illegal for British farmers to use the same reckless and environmentally damaging methods. Incredibly it wasn’t pressure from hard pressed British farmers that resulted in this bad deal being called off. Negotiations have failed because Canadian farmers didn’t want to face fresh competition from British cheese makers. Those cheese makers now face an actual worsening of the existing trade deal instead of any improved access. And, of course, thanks to Brexit British cheese suppliers have to fill out huge amounts of expensive extra paperwork to trade with the EU.
A hostile environmental policy
If there is one thing that has characterised Sunak’s time as chancellor and as prime minister, it is his huge reluctance to do anything serious about tackling environmental problems and his eagerness to weaken environmental regulations to please the extremists within his own party ranks.
This is the chancellor who consistently refused to provide funding to insulate homes and install solar panels but was willing to waste billions in the hope that sometime in the distant future a nuclear power station would get built on time and on budget. Last week we got further evidence of the huge cost of Hinkley Point C. A project that is spiralling out of control so rapidly that it would make the organisers of HS2 blush.
This is the chancellor who squandered around £37bn on subsidising fuel bills at the very same time that he was allowing fossil fuel suppliers to put up bills so extortionately that they made all-time record profits. He it was who enthusiastically issued new licences for oil and gas drilling, locking the nation into dependency for another twenty years.
This is the chancellor who gave out the solemn pre-Brexit assurances that Britain would never lower environmental standards once it was outside the EU. Yet has supported the lifting of the ban on neonicotinoids for the fourth year running. As a temporary emergency measure.
Tax cuts and mountainous debts
In the run up to the budget we are going to be told much about the wonderful way the economy has been managed and how that has paved the way for tax cuts. The truth is the nation is still mired deeply in debt. All that has really altered is that a magic money tree has been found in advance of an election. It will be chopped down very firmly the day after the election if they win.
Private individuals in Britain are suffering with monumental levels of debt. Small businesses are going bankrupt at record rates. The government has a debt mountain that is almost the equal of what the entire country earns in a whole year.
That is a very strange definition of a stable economy. Much of the country is united by one thing. They are convinced that the time has come to remove him and his party from office.