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Another month, another prime minister

By Isobel Adams

The Glasgow Guardian critically examines what the UK’s latest Prime Minister Rishi Sunak means for the future of the country.

After only 44 days in office, Liz Truss became the shortest serving prime minister (PM) and second Conservative prime minister to resign in a matter of months. Her replacement Rishi Sunak, who lost out on the premiership to Truss just over month before, entered office without the backing of a single vote. 

When Rishi Sunak entered office in late October, he became the first person of colour to lead the UK and our first Hindu prime minister. Sunak, at the age of just 42, is also the youngest to ever hold office, bar William Pitt the Younger. Heralded by many as a watershed moment for diversity in the UK, and a turning point for the scandal-plagued Conservative party, the new PM has vowed to run a government with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.” By comparison, the Labour party has only ever elected white, male leaders – an unfortunate truth for the party supposedly founded on equality and progressive values. 

However, as much as the Conservatives may wish to turn the page on what has been a disastrous few months for the party, the new PM does not enter No. 10 Downing Street baggage free. Sunak has on multiple occasions made headlines for all the wrong reasons.  When serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Boris Johnson’s leadership, it was revealed that his wife held – and continues to do so – non-domestic status in the UK, meaning she is unobligated to pay taxes to the UK Government. 

Putting the irony of a chancellor unable to make his own wife pay taxes to one side, it has also since been reported that Sunak himself is richer than the king, with an estimated net worth of £730 million. Despite this, he must now attempt to lead the country through one of the worst economic downturns in recent years; a situation, lest we not forget, made significantly worse by the Conservative party under the Truss government. 

Additionally, despite Sunak’s pledges to run a government with “compassion”, earlier this year, the PM was criticised over comments made to Conservative party members whereby he implied, as chancellor, that he had taken public money out of deprived areas to help wealthier towns. Notably, under Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, some of the wealthiest parts of England were allocated ten times more money per capita than the poorest. 

Even without these controversies, Sunak remains the third prime minister to enter office since the last general election in 2019. This, and the arrogant disarray with which the Conservatives have run the county in the interim, has left many (not unreasonably) disillusioned with their government. There is a sense that, though legal, Sunak’s government lacks the political and moral legitimacy required to effectively govern. As such, calls for a new general election to hold the Conservatives to account, or at the very least give them a new mandate with which to govern, were widespread following Sunak’s appointment. As it stands Rishi Sunak, and his party, appear unaccountable and therefore illegitimate to the public. 

Under UK law, the Conservative party is legally permitted to govern for another two years without calling a public vote. Under the parliamentary system employed in UK politics, the prime minister is not directly elected by the people, as is the case of the President in the USA. Instead, the party who obtains the largest number of seats in the House of Commons are free to choose their leader. 

However, faith in this system appears doubtful when set against the backdrop of headlines such as ‘Who voted for you?’ from the Daily Mirror. An IPSOS poll taken the week before Sunak’s appointment also suggested that 3 in 5 members of the public support a general election to take place once a new prime minister had been appointed. Yet this is unsurprising given that political thinkers have long proposed a government is only legitimate when it has the popular and implicit consent of the governed. 

The case for a general election, in which the Conservatives would have to seek a new mandate from the public, is made stronger still as Sunak’s government will be forced to implement a programme of government far removed from the 2019 Election Manifesto written prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and current economic crisis. A government’s manifesto, the importance of which is enshrined in part by the Salisbury Doctrine, aids much legitimacy to a newly-formed government. 

Furthermore, the Conservatives’ pledge to reach Net Zero by 2050 already seems deprioritised by Sunak who initially planned not to attend the COP27 conference in Egypt despite calls by the UN for governments to increase efforts to reduce global temperatures or face climate disaster. A last minute U-turn saw the PM pledge to attend amidst criticism. Moreover, the Conservatives manifesto promise to not raise the rate of income tax, VAT, or national insurance has been rendered unachievable given the current state of the economy. Sunak has already acknowledged the need for ‘difficult decisions’ in the coming months to ensure economic stability. Such decisions will almost certainly include an increase in taxes and cuts to public spending. 

Within the Scottish context, Sunak’s new government appears on even shakier footing where they lack support to an even greater extent. Many Scots are already feeling inadequately represented by Westminster, as evidenced by renewed calls for Scottish independence. Sunak has made clear his intentions to deny the Scottish National Party (SNP) their wish for another referendum on the question of Scottish independence, stating that now is not the time for “an unnecessary, divisive constitutional referendum.” This attitude may yet only serve to widen the gap between Holyrood and Westminster. “Scottish democracy will not be a prisoner of Rishi Sunak or any other prime minister,” remarked Sturgeon following his appointment. 

How Rishi Sunak’s government will shape up is yet to be discerned, but given the party’s recent track record of scandal, ignorance and extraordinary misjudgement culminating in the appointment of a third prime minister at the beginning of this month, the public reserve the right to be concerned. You’d be forgiven for worrying what next month may yet bring.


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