Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters
There is something accidental about Rishi Sunak. It was part of the route he took to Downing Street, taking over from someone who had recently beaten him in a race to the top. It was unceremonious, like an athlete reaping the gold medal after the winner failed a drug test.
But the unease runs deeper – at the lack of a purpose beyond cleaning up the mess created by previous Conservative governments. If Sunak has a vision of what to achieve as prime minister, his realization lies in a slurry pit filled with the mistakes of his predecessor. Even if he crosses with rare panache he will stink before he reaches the other side.
The state of public finances, made precarious by Liz Truss’s far-fetched fiscal alchemy experiments, is only the first problem.
All the proposed remedies, any configuration of spending cuts and tax increases, have unpleasant side effects. Austerity threatens to further depress demand in a declining economy. There will be discontent this winter.
When inflicting public suffering, prime ministers apologize in three ways: they blame the state of affairs as they found them upon taking office; they blame the global economic climate; they describe a pleasant destination that will make the arduous journey worthwhile.
None of this is easy for Sunak. The legacy argument bounces back to his own party. On the international front, Russian aggression is a cause of high energy prices and Britain is not alone in suffering from inflation, but voters expect their own government to have solutions, not problems abroad. As for the joy on the horizon, it is the rhetorical repertoire of the new regimes. A new mandate is needed to appeal to patience.
Boris Johnson could get away with it in 2019, after nearly a decade of Tory rule, as Brexit was a departure from everything that had come before. The journey was beginning. But now we are there. It’s a conservative utopia and Sunak can’t explain why it sucks.
Worse than a lack of direction is the loss of everything meaning orientation. It’s a crisis told in the parable of Gavin Williamson, twice sacked for failure in senior government posts, who is now stepping down from his role as minister without portfolio after allegations of bullying and intimidation of colleagues and officials.
There must have been a question Sunak asked that Williamson was an answer to. It can have nothing to do with effective administration or restoring the integrity of government. This leaves favors trading, reimbursing allies and keeping a Ruthless Operator inside the tent, instead of letting them loose to cause trouble in the backseats.
The reason for Williamson’s return to government is also the reason many Tories wanted him gone. Someone whose value to a leader is brutal, amoral efficiency in power games will collect enemies. His attachment to Sunak, having served others with mercenary promiscuity, has stirred up old resentments. It also reveals a broader lack of deference to the current leader. If more MPs feared Sunak or wanted him to succeed, they wouldn’t have targeted his lieutenant.
Williamson does not represent any ideological strain of Toryism. His exclusion from the cabinet will not change the balance between left and right, moderate or radical. He is a sower of poison, now reaping a vengeful harvest.
The party has reached that dirty stage of ungovernability, symptomatic of a long tenure, when ideas are stale, ambitions have been thwarted and MPs find personal vendetta more compelling than politics.
This lamentable state coincides with a deeper crisis of conservatism. The crux of the matter is that winning the key electoral battles over Brexit – the referendum and the 2019 general election – required embracing a radical nationalism that relishes the destruction of established institutions, openly flirts with extreme xenophobia right and despises compromise. It’s not conservative.
Related: Rishi Sunak has surrounded himself with yes-men. What he really needs is a Willie | Simon Jenkins
It was no problem when Johnson was in his pump. He dealt with the contradictions by eclipsing them, making history and the object of allegiance. Liz Truss won the Tory leadership as a continuity candidate in denial, then steered the party into a high-speed collision with reality.
Truss’s short reign was long enough to discredit his credo – a libertarian monomania that would never have won an electoral mandate on its own. He rode into Downing Street on the back of a tiger called Brexit, which has now unseated four Tory riders.
Sunak’s base is made up of more liberal conservatives who believe it is high time the beast was tamed, but he is wary of populist-leaning carnivorous MPs. He does not want to deprive them of favors for fear of one day becoming their next meal. That’s why he appears stuck, directionless, not a newsmaker but the kind of leader the news comes to.
Perhaps he planned a bold move to seize the initiative. Sunak is more popular than his party. But for that to be a strength, he must have control, which means having a program that others follow; something more than cleaning up someone else’s mess. Otherwise, he’s a caretaker at a reckless party and another conservative accident is waiting to happen.