One reading of Rishi Sunak’s premiership almost a year in is that he has been a deeply unlucky prime minister.
Only an MP since 2015 and a minister since 2018, Sunak remained a relative political novice when he took charge of the Conservative party last October. Nonetheless, his party had sunk to a nadir in its fortunes upon his sombre winter coronation, as the consequences of a prolonged tenure in power began to exact a debilitating toll.
It came after his predecessor-but-one had faced a mutiny of ministers following a series of scandals. His immediate predecessor then seized the helm and, with haste, (44 days to be precise) plotted a course towards the nearest iceberg.
It was in this context that Sunak was washed aboard, facing a cohort of disaffected colleagues, some of whom intensely regretted the ousting of his predecessor-but-one, with others feeling existential about the party’s electoral prospects.
Of course, as prime minister, Sunak has undertaken to weave the warp of fortune’s caprice. Denying his colleagues’ nihilistic determinism, in January he foretold of five New Year North Stars — on inflation, growth, debt, the NHS and small boats — which could chart the course of his already ailing administration.
The “five pledges” were at once an audacious and deeply pragmatic statement of intent: he would win the tug-of-war of agency and contingency, boring the public with a record of delivery so undeniable that Britain would collectively soften into a state of political pliability. On these such terms — founded on his fiscal virtù — Sunak would win back voters to the Conservatives.
You may be wondering where I am going with this. But when it comes to Rishi Sunak’s current political prospects, it is often worth stepping back to consider the obvious counterfactual.
Of course, before the Department of Education (DfE) last week announced that more than 150 schools across England were deemed to be at risk of collapse, things were already progressing rather poorly for Rishi Sunak.
But the scandal that now engulfs his government signals a fundamentally different kind of tumult for our technocrat-in-chief. The fluff and misfortune of previous “scandals” of which Sunak has been said to bear responsibility — think “seatbeat-gate”, for example — pale in comparison to Britain’s collective consternation over crumbling concrete.
The first reason for this is that Sunak sits at the heart of the crisis, as he faces criticism over his decision as chancellor of the exchequer to fund the rebuilding of 50 schools a year despite officials requesting a figure four times that rate.
Indeed, schools minister Nick Gibb (whose work is frequently cited as a lodestar for effective Conservative governance) admitted on Tuesday that in 2021 the DfE had asked for enough Treasury money to fund the overhauling of 200 schools a year.
Gibb’s candour followed the damning testimony of former permanent secretary at the DfE Jonathan Slater, who first raised the spectre of Sunak’s 2021 spending review. Elsewhere, head of the National Audit Office (NAO) Gareth Davies curiously invoked Keir Starmer’s favourite catchphrase as he accused ministers of adopting a “sticking plaster approach”.
In this way — and not surprisingly — it is Keir Starmer who is the single biggest beneficiary of Sunak’s apparent school spending blunder. Thanks to the Raac crisis, not only has Starmer’s description of a “crumbling” Britain leaped from mere party-political metaphor to material reality, the Labour leader can plausibly lay the blame at Sunak’s door.
There is, of course, the case for the defence — which Sunak argued with rather unfamiliar ferocity at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. The crucial point is this: Raac pre-dates Sunak and consecutive governments have been explicitly warned about its downsides since at least as early as 1995.
But this does not change the fact that, as chancellor (a position in which Sunak acquired so much political capital as a “problem solver”), the prime minister was apparently presented with the chance to act and he, instead, fixated on fiscal prudence. There is an obvious question which follows: if the prime minister is as on top of his brief as he and his allies claim, why couldn’t he spot the Raac problem as chancellor?
We are told that the prime minister is never more comfortable than when he is behind his desk, binders bulging: that, at least, is the image No 10 has sought to cultivate throughout Sunak’s tenure as PM. However, this argument comes crucially unstuck over the matter of crumbling concrete.
Why Raac leaves Sunak so exposed:
Over recent months, Sunak’s tough talk on growth, inflation and the NHS has been buoyed politically by his relative freshness; were such promises uttered by a Grant Shapps or a Michael Gove — those long survivors of Conservative rule — it would be immediately undercut by the question: “why haven’t you acted before?”. (Of course, it doesn’t help that Gove ended Labour’s school buildings programme as education secretary in 2010 — something he later admitted he handled “in a crass and insensitive way”).
In this way, Starmer’s “13 years of Tory rule” routine can sometimes slide off Sunak — ever-keen to present his rule as some totemic new departure. But on Raac, Sunak has left a trail of technocracy which implicates him as damningly as any other actor stretching back to the 1990s. Having built his reputation on taking personal responsibility for difficult decisions — styling his fiscal prudence as his foremost virtù — it is a charge that he will struggle to shake.
Indeed, Sunak’s decision at PMQs to revive Keir Starmer’s “Captain Hindsight” moniker, an old Boris Johnson refrain, will reek for some of desperation. In the long view of British politics, the slide into Johnsonian bluster may prove the canary in the commons for Sunak’s long-term political prospects. He promised to return to dogged work of government and to results: but the bluster, it seems, is back.
Starmer on school buildings
As far as Starmer’s response goes, the ever-lucky LOTO has been handed the perfect illustration of what he has termed “sticking plaster” politics. It is a phrase that has so far failed to catch on beyond the confines of his shadow cabinet — but, with the NAO’s endorsement enumerated above, that might be about to change.
Thus, as you would expect, Labour’s Twitter is now a tapestry of aggressive attack ads taking aim squarely at the PM.
Still, the coarse criticism from Starmer has not yet yielded a solution; in fact, the Labour leader has conspicuously refused to confirm whether he would start/restart a schools building programme as prime minister.
Why? Because Sir Keir wants to prevent this latest government crisis transposing into a fiscal trap for his party. It is tellingly that Starmer now so expects government crises that his shadow ministers have been given a strict script: criticise the government and when probed on possible fixes reemphasise your party’s fiscal prudence.
However, if the Raac crisis spirals further, the activist instincts of the Labour movement at large would surely force Starmer to take a more substantive policy footing. The forum for such a move, naturally, would be provided for by the party’s annual conference in October.
In any case, a schools building programme — if it can be justified in line with Rachel Reeves’ fiscal rules (particularly that on debt) — would fit neatly into Starmer’s fifth “mission” on opportunity.
This begs the question: can Starmer really continue with a mission dedicated to education without a programme of reform outlined on school building and Raac in particular? Right now, it is far from clear that the issue of aerated concrete will be over before the next election.
In this way, the Raac crisis might prove not only Rishi Sunak’s defining crisis as prime minister — but also Keir Starmer’s as Loto.
That, I would suggest, is the political potency of Britain’s current case of crumbling school buildings.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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