Did you ever miss Gordon Brown becoming Prime Minister? I do. The face is set firmly; seriousness; a rarely seen smile that looked like it was kept in a cage and only let out for exercise. Being prime minister should never look like fun, especially not in a crisis.
I’m not sure if Rishi Sunak ever got a proper frown in his life.
Mr. Sunak addressed the country at the dawn of the new year with a speech designed to show that he is a man with a mission. “The cost of living is too high. NHS waiting times are too long,” he said.
Give these lines to Gordon Brown and he’ll deliver them with the fury of a heretical preacher. Lightning strikes and aftershocks would not be out of the question.
Sunak delivered them as a commercial director at a software sales conference.
Some of it was bland, dispassionate clichés – “build a better future”; “record sums in the NHS”; “difficult but necessary decisions” – and partly bland, dispassionate delivery. Every speech with Sunak is delivered with the same anemic up-and-down cadence that whitewashes all emotion and makes him sound like a commercial voiceover.
Where is the animation, the passion, the authenticity?
Sunak is more fluent than Truss (not difficult) and less condescending than Johnson, but it’s telling that, like Johnson, he struggles to convey conviction and sincerity, despite the dire state of the NHS.
He tried to get personal, describing the NHS as “my family’s life’s calling”, but there was so little fire in his words that one was left wondering how much he even used it.
On Sunday, Laura Kuensberg pushed him to do so, asking three times if he had seen a private therapist, but to no avail.
He revealed in the House of Commons yesterday that he was with an NHS GP. He did not tell deputies when he registered there, but says he has used private medical services in the past.
People want to know these things for a reason. While we’re at it, does he have experience with the public education system? Has he ever relied on public transportation to get around every day? Has he ever had to supplement his income with benefits? If the answers to all these questions were negative, then it could indicate that he is somewhat disconnected from the experience of the majority of people in the country.
It might not matter if he was actually the chief commercial officer of a technology company, but it matters a lot given that he is ultimately responsible for the management and funding of public services.
Both of these things — the questioning of the depth of his convictions and the reaction to his health care choices — are really about the same issue: Rishi Sunak’s privilege. Can the richest member of parliament really appreciate how dire and precarious the lives of millions of people are now?
He has taken his political career far ahead by simply not being Boris Johnson or Liz Truss. Even though he was Boris Johnson’s chancellor, he even did a reasonable job of trying to make it look like a break with the past.
But as the memory of his predecessors’ chaotic tenure fades, people are beginning to judge Mr. Sunac on his own merits and question who he really is. Is it really a break with the past? I’m afraid not. We may have gotten rid of the populists, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that we have Mr Sunak David Cameron Mark II.
Cameron, considered by many when he left office to be the worst prime minister since the war, has always been plagued by the same question: What are you in politics for? People wondered what injustice had driven the Eton- and Oxford-educated son of a stockbroker into political office.
As people tried to figure out what motivated him, suspicions grew. Did he serve as Prime Minister before moving on to some lucrative position in the City? Was he just doing it because he could?
The current prime minister is also interested in the same. Sunak also attended a prestigious public school and Oxford. He made his fortune in the City and married a very wealthy woman. The Prime Minister and his wife are reported to be worth £730 million, making him richer than the King.
Sunak, like Cameron, exhibits the same carefree entitlement. Both sought and acquired power without being able to articulate convincingly what motivated them to seek it or how they would combat injustice and inequality. And so, naturally, we wonder: can we trust them?
We have a warning from Cameron. He was good enough in presentation to win support, but when tested by events, he falls short. Some of his convictions turned out to be shallow (such as rejecting key environmental measures) and he took a staggering risk with the country’s interests in a European referendum designed to settle Tory disputes – a risk for which we are all still paying the price.
What also worries Sunaka is that he is emotionally detached from the consequences of his decisions. He was an ardent supporter of Brexit and still refuses to say a word against it, despite a mountain of evidence that it raised prices, caused labor shortages and badly hurt the economy. Perhaps, like other hard-line Brexiters, he thinks it’s reasonable for (other) people to suffer for the cause.
So yes, we’ve had a break from the blatant dishonesty and chaos of the Johnson years, but it feels like we’ve ended up with another elitist prime minister who perhaps finds it difficult to relate to the everyday struggles of the people.
This is why I miss Gordon Brown, imperfect though he was, as the last prime minister who was genuinely committed to tackling inequality and injustice. Rishi Sunak’s boyish grin won’t be a cover for long unless he can prove to doubting voters that he really cares.