Argument

Rishi Sunak: Mask Off

Beneath the chancellor’s spin shows a track record of devastating mistakes and a failure of governance.
By
Zeyd Anwar
Founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
HM Treasury
May 7, 2021
W

e are yet to meet the real Rishi Sunak. Since taking office last year, Sunak has embarked upon one of the biggest public relations campaigns in recent years. Presenting himself as Britain’s next prime minister, Sunak has made an effort to portray himself as a different type of Conservative. Rather than a member of Johnson’s far-right sect — of which Patel, Williamson and Gove are a part — Sunak has made a conscious effort to portray competence, empathy and youth in government. But the electorate should not be misled — Sunak has been at the core of the Conservative government’s gravest failings, and represents a toxic type of politics that is heavy on spin and opaque on truth.

Like Tony Blair and David Cameron, Sunak’s rapid ascent in British politics has benefited from a lack of notability. Without past blunders, a strong media presence or a well-known ideological framework, Sunak has been able to forge an image from a clean canvas, presenting on to the public a constructed identity of charm and relatability. Having hired a brand agency to do the heavy lifting, Sunak has placed his signatures on Treasury communications, curated carefully shot hoodie-and-tie photos, and has cosied up to the LadBible and Glamour Magazine for interviews to enhance his celebrity-like status.

Sunak’s YouTube also speaks volumes. The account possesses a playlist called ‘Rishi Meets’, a series of videos following Sunak’s interactions with members of the public, while others show Sunak teaching various maths classes in Watford and London, engaging with children as the kind-spirited, well-to-do MP that he is. The media, too, have played into this narrative: The Times last year featured a profile of Sunak with a halo around his head, while the BBC depicted Sunak as Superman — only having to apologise and remove the video a few hours later. But perhaps the biggest example of Sunak’s thirst for public relations came during the summer of 2020. The chancellor was more than happy to plaster his face on the Eat Out To Help Out Scheme, but less reluctant to admit that it drove COVID-19 infections 8-17%, a fact now confirmed by the University of Warwick.

And so we come to Sunak’s contributions to the failings of the Conservative government, of which there have been many. Sunak’s record during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a consistent disregard of the virus in favour of a ‘return to normal’ despite Britain’s death toll. As early as April last year, Sunak was behind the idea that non-essential workplaces could be COVID-safe, as well as the campaign that stated workers would have to go back to work or risk losing their job — a campaign that was later quietly dropped after ridicule. Sunak, too, was a loud voice in resisting Britain’s second lockdown in November — a decision that delayed the inevitable but contributed to Britain’s worsening death rates.

On the economic front, Sunak had been praised for rolling out the furlough scheme, but the chancellor still failed to comprehend the seriousness of the virus. Despite the well-known, impending second wave of COVID-19, Sunak refused to extend the furlough scheme beyond 31 October, and cut the scheme’s wage subsidy from 80% to 60%. This decision had been undertaken on the assumption the virus had been defeated. Of course, it had not. But the Chancellor’s delays nevertheless contributed to thousands of further redundancies that could have been avoidable. Only on 31 October, when the damage had been done, did Sunak respond by restoring the original subsidy back to 80%, and extending the scheme until March of 2021.

Sunak, too, played a role in the spread of the virus from overseas travellers. Despite agreeing that travellers should now face a quarantine, Sunak had consistently opposed the need for a blanket quarantine policy for foreign travellers coming to the UK. Only a year after the pandemic has Britain now introduced a quarantining hotel policy, but the effectiveness has inevitably been reduced. Various mutated strains of COVID-19 have already been found in Britain, a big concern to Britain as it rolls out its speedy vaccination program.

But Sunak’s character cannot, and should not be limited to his decisions taken during the pandemic. Despite his personal brand, the chancellor’s voting record reveals him to be more akin to the hard-right of the party than the Cameroonians. Sunak has consistently voted against measures to prevent climate change, has voted for mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities, has almost always voted for a stricter asylum system, has voted against laws to promote equality and human rights, and has consistently voted against paying higher benefits for those unable to work due to illness or disability. Indeed, Sunak had even been banned from a local pub in his constituency, having voted against extending free school meals for hungry children.

Rishi Sunak’s spin may show him to be a caring, competent and compassionate Conservative, but the truth is this: Sunak is responsible for Britain’s devastating COVID-19 death toll, and enabling an incompetent, hard-right government that has set Britain back for years to come.

Zeyd Anwar is the founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
@zeydanwar

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