Tumbleweeds roll through Portcullis House. Crickets chirp in an empty commons chamber. Downing Street is a dustbowl of ideas as ministers twiddle their thumbs around the cabinet table. And where’s Rishi Sunak? Not at the despatch box for prime minister’s questions, that’s for sure.
On Tuesday, the House of Commons adjourned at 5.46 pm, some way short of the target finish time of 8 pm. In fact, the commons now regularly rises early on working days; without enough business to fill MPs’ time, Westminster is grinding to a halt with summer recess still two weeks away.
In April, Private Eye reported that Speaker Lindsay Hoyle regularly scrambles for Urgent Questions to prevent the constant pre-teatime finishes. Trivial ministerial contributions on the Telegraph’s tranche of Matt Hancock’s WhatsApps, Sue Gray’s appointment as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff and the leaking of top secret military documents by the US government might support the magazine’s scoop.
A further sign of the times is that Michael Gove, Whitehall’s most energetic minister, is an increasingly rare sight at the commons despatch box. The Treasury has reportedly banned the levelling up secretary from pursuing any new capital expenditure without its approval. It means not even Michael Gove can get government moving.
Indeed, when commons leader Penny Mordaunt addresses the House on a Thursday morning, she announces not forthcoming government business, but general debates, opposition motions and the odd forthcoming altercation over a privileges committee report.
If Liz Truss had too many ideas and not enough strategy, Rishi Sunak appears to have neither.
Ultimately, Sunak’s policy impasse fuels the impression that he leads an absentee, hollow government — one bereft of strategy and in dire need of a fresh raison d’être. Right now, the government simply does not have a legislative programme; in truth, it hasn’t for some time. And the lull has not gone unnoticed: Sunakered trends on Twitter at regular intervals.
The news agenda is, therefore, Sir Keir Starmer’s to tyrannise. And, this week, the news cycle duly churned over with commentary on Labour’s education “mission”. Step back, and this is Starmer’s fifth and final speech on his missions — but probably the first to really seize the moment. This is not only because Labour had a free run at the evening news bulletins, but because Starmer’s emphasis on smashing the “class ceiling” is canny politics, exploiting an exposed Sunak on his privileged background. I’m sure the prime minister is rueing his decision not rival Starmer’s media monopoly with a further announcement on maths, or something even more tedious.
But the bad optics aside, in truth there are several reasons for parliament’s present legislative lull.
Firstly, the spectre of Boris Johnson still stalks the Palace of Westminster, with debates and votes on privileges committee reports absorbing a significant amount of parliamentary oxygen.
An impasse might also be attributed to Sunak’s ailing authority over his party — his initial imperative early on in his premiership to act decisively on issues like housebuilding and onshore wind resulted in politically trying rebellions, expending much capital in the process. Then there are the legal logjams on the government’s Rwanda deportations scheme and over its decision to withhold Boris Johnson’s WhatsApps from Baroness Hallett and the Covid inquiry. One wonders if Rishi Sunak’s time, right now, is spent rather more on legal rather than political strategy.
But the biggest reason for Sunak’s great slowdown is surely his anticipation of the beginning of recess, with the House set to rise for the summer on 20 July. Ahead of a 46-day break, it would be rather unusual for Rishi Sunak to decide that now is the time to inaugurate a new legislative agenda.
But the reasons for Sunak’s legislative lull are not nearly as important as the perception it inspires of his government as exhausted and rudderless.
What is troubling for the prime minister is that this prevailing view runs directly counter to the one he sought to engender in January. At the start of 2023, Rishi Sunak began his year with a round of ruthlessly pragmatic oath swearing. Promising to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut NHS waiting lists and “stop the boats”, the prime minister claimed he was pronouncing the “people’s priorities”. The pledges were the essential Sunakian pitch. The PM planned to bore Britain with a record of delivery so undeniable, so straightforward that the public would be forced to reward his party with an unprecedented fifth term.
But what we see now is this strategy’s logical antithesis: a zombie government, careering aimlessly from one uncomfortable news day to another — with Rishi Sunak, the nation’s nominal lead, appearing every so often to trot out a carefully rehearsed line in a pool clip for the media. Our PM’s rigid message discipline is interpreted more and more as evidence that this government proffers spin in place of policy solutions.
Moreover, with the PM’s key indicators on inflation, economic growth, small boats, NHS waiting lists and debt all pointing in the wrong direction, there is a general sense that the government has much to do. But, prevailing wisdom holds moreover, ministers refuse to pull a finger out. “They really have given up”, Angela Rayner accosted Oliver Dowden on Wednesday, who was attending PMQs in the PM’s absence.
It buttresses Keir Starmer’s key attack line that, after 13 years, the need for a political overhaul has never been so pressing. Labour now regularly calls on the government to call a general election, breaking some iron political rules in the process.
It rarely benefits an opposition party to call for a general election. Such siren calls are essentially guaranteed to be ignored and the climbdown that follows, in returning to the dogged business of opposition, can be difficult to land. But, increasingly, leading Labour figures eye political opportunity in calling for a national poll. “It is time [Rishi Sunak] declared and called a general election”, shadow commons leader Thangam Debbonaire told Penny Mordaunt yesterday, complaining at a lack of parliamentary business. It chimes with a prevailing view which sees the government as tired and parliament, as a whole, in desperate need of a refresh. Labour can hence argue Sunak’s refusal to trigger an election exposes his desperation to cling to power, in lieu of any enthusiasm for actually acting on Britain’s mounting interrelated crises.
So amid this great slowdown, what is the prime minister up to? One imagines that Sunak’s days are spent, when he is not preaching to NHS workers at Westminster abbey, on (1) by-election strategy for the slew of polls in the upcoming weeks, and (2), even now, the immensely significant King’s Speech in the Autumn.
With recess around the corner, the prime minister may now be biding his time for a blitz of pronouncements on his five pledges in September. Of course, it is no secret that Sunak desperately requires a soft reboot of his premiership, and a period of quiet now — allowing the commons to give its ascent to a series of privileges committee reports — followed by a conscious bid to build momentum in the autumn, may well be the plan. In September, Sunak will get the ball rolling on some salient issues, designed to provoke Labour and contour the terrain on the next election will be fought.
But, right now, there is no disguising that Sunak’s legislative lull feeds the PM’s enduring problem of passivity. Ever-conspicuous in his absence, the prime minister has done very little in recent weeks to counter his characterisation as a permanent spectator. With his poor PMQs attendance record, unwillingness to lance the throbbing boil of Boris Johnson and court rulings going against the government, the momentum seems be everywhere in British politics apart from in No 10.
And with five key by-elections on the horizon, this view of the PM will be conditioning the minds of those set to go to the polls in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Selby and Ainsty, Somerton and Frome, Mid Bedfordshire, and Tamworth. In this way, Starmer looks set to seize on Sunak’s great slowdown and benefit, in the short term at least, immensely.
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