Politics is awash with sports metaphors. As Boris Johnson once said, parrying an enquiry about leadership ambitions, “if the ball comes loose from the back of the scrum” he might have a go. You can plan and hope for years, but what makes the difference in politics is opportunity. If the ball breaks loose you can pick it up and run, or you can look away.
Rishi Sunak has picked up the ball twice. The first time he was tackled and fell. The second time he made it over the line.
Sunak takes over between General Elections. Despite the calls for a General Election in Parliament, on Twitter and in the media, this is not particularly unusual. John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher. Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair. Boris Johnson took over from Theresa May who in turn had taken over from David Cameron. Asquith took over from Campbell Bannerman. Lloyd George took over from Asquith. In some of these cases there was little or no contest.
Our constitution is set up to make these transitions possible. Yet today’s political reality makes them tricky, because when a Prime Minister is changed through failure or crisis, the incomer immediately inherits a “sticky wicket” and a to-do list which is less an agenda and more a conversation between a rock and a hard place.
So what are Rishi Sunak’s first challenges?
He will need to think about the Cabinet. Does he want to stick with the current team assembled by Liz Truss or are there others to bring in (which in turn means some sackings)? I have written about Cabinet reshuffles before. They can be painful and long-drawn-out affairs, but Sunak will want to move speedily to ensure a breadth of talent in the team. While Truss appeared to reward supporters, Sunak’s task is to bring unity which must mean ensuring a wider spread. Thatcher’s early Cabinet was not just a collection of her friends, and Sunak too will want to be seen to include those who openly supported another candidate.
The next fiscal event, or mini budget, is set for Monday 31st. Sunak has already been briefed by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. The task will be to make sure the announcements land well.
Possibly the biggest early challenge is Prime Minister’s Questions. If the leadership contest had run to a members’ vote, Liz Truss would have been at the despatch box this Wednesday (26th). The speed of the process means that it will be Sunak. As a former Chancellor he has experience of answering in the Commons. But PMQs is a whole new ball game. Prime Ministers and their teams generally put significant effort into preparations for this event but Sunak may have to wing it more than usual.
Speaking style is also a challenge. Cameron and Johnson were lucky in that they had a relaxed style. May was rather brittle – or perhaps ‘technical’ is kinder. Gove, when he stood in for May, was entertaining and combative – William Hague when he stood in for David Cameron was so good it left he party wondering what could have been! Sunak can come across as rather wooden so he will need to think about the range of styles a Prime Minister needs to communicate in the Commons, to the markets, to the public and so on.
Finally, what about elections and polls? The last few opinion polls have been dire for the Conservatives and he will immediately face two North West by-elections in Chester and West Lancashire. So Sunak may have won a sprint, but the marathon comes with water jumps, hurdles and well-trained opponents. It is never wise to make predictions in politics, but I will predict a very testing time for the new PM.
Paula Keaveney is Programme Leader for Politics at Edge Hill University.