Another day, another British prime minister

Another day, and the U.K. has another Conservative prime minister. The Tories’ infamous “men in grey suits” wanted to ensure that the decision to pick the next Conservative leader (and, by extension, British prime minister) would be taken by Tory MPs rather than the broader party membership. They did so by stipulating that any would-be leader must gather the support of 100 MPs (a high threshold) to be eligible to appear on the ballot in the first round, a vote by the parliamentary party.

This proved to be too high a hurdle for two contenders, Penny Mordaunt, the more-woke-than-you’d-think leader of the House of Commons, and Boris Johnson, the king over the water, who flew back from the Dominican Republic in an effort to reclaim his throne. That left only Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister). He passed the threshold and, in the absence of an eligible challenger, bypassed the need to hand the final decision to the party’s members, who might otherwise have opted for Johnson, a gamble too far for the men in those suits.

The choice of Sunak, whose immigrant parents are of Hindu Punjabi descent, ought to embarrass those Labour Party critics forever criticizing the party of Thatcher, May, and, more lately, Truss, Kwarteng, Braverman (and the list goes on) for its lack of diversity. But no, their line of attack is merely switching from sex and race to more traditional British territory: class. Sunak’s father had become a doctor, his mother a pharmacist, kulaks both. Their son attended one of Britain’s top “public” (which is to say, private) schools, before going on to Oxford and, later, Stanford. Stints at Goldman Sachs and a couple of hedge funds, as well as marriage to a billionaire’s daughter (whose U.K. tax status was the topic of some controversy) then followed. Labour will argue that Sunak’s background means that he cannot possibly understand the effect of austerity or savagely higher energy prices on “ordinary” Brits.

For now, Sunak’s task is to ensure that the country can weather hard times without going through another financial crisis comparable to the one that shook its bond markets after the recent mini-budget. It was encouraging that British government bond yields fell on the news of Sunak’s win and that the pound held steady. Investors will now be waiting to see if the new prime minister will be able to stick to the fiscal discipline promised by his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, when voters revolt — and they will — against rising taxes, constrained public expenditure, and falling standards of living, all of which are on the way, a revolt that will be made more difficult by pressure from unhappy Tory MPs fearing for their jobs. Those MPs, along with financial markets, will be Sunak’s most important constituency for now.

For some on the right of the Conservative Party to talk of the need for a snap election says more about the lingering appeal of the cult of Johnson’s largely confected personality than ideology. It is made all the more bizarre by the fact that it would mean electoral the annihilation of the Tories, as, for that matter, would prolonged factional bickering. When Sunak tells his party to “unite or die,” he is not exaggerating. All the same, Sunak would do well to pay attention to some of the Right’s concerns. The Conservative Party, like the Labour Party, is a large, sometimes fractious coalition. Sunak must lead in a way that reflects that.

Longer term, if Sunak wishes to extricate Britain from the long period of low growth that has marred the past two decades, he should not regard the failure of execution that destroyed Liz Truss’s premiership as a refutation of the free-market, smaller-state ideas that inspired her. That vision should still point the way to the direction that the Tories should take, but this time they must pay careful attention to the political, economic, and fiscal realities of the country over which they rather uncertainly preside.

In one recent poll the Conservatives were trailing Labour, a party that is further to the left than many believe, by 26 percentage points. With the election scarcely more than two years away, austerity on the agenda, a weakening economy, and an energy crisis that may stretch long beyond this winter, Sunak has a mountain to climb.

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