Joshua Hockley-Still (University of Exeter)
As Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s deadline to reach a Brexit deal passed without agreement, Britain is now less than 3 months away from leaving the European Union without a trade deal (commonly known as ‘no deal’.) Johnson’s position is clear; being considered the man to get Brexit done took him into Downing Street and he has repeatedly claimed that, while he would rather leave with a deal, he would prefer no deal than delaying or cancelling Brexit. Yet Johnson’s premiership has become increasingly beleaguered as he struggles to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The economic shock of a no-deal Brexit would pile further pressure on his long-term future and, far more importantly, threaten to raise unemployment to levels even higher than they will be taken already by the pandemic.
In contrast to Johnson, Rishi Sunak has emerged as one of the few people to enjoy a good 2020. Unexpectedly promoted to Chancellor after Sajid Javid’s sudden departure in February, Sunak immediately faced Britain’s worst economic crisis in decades as coronavirus hit. He quickly became a national figure, winning plaudits for his competence in handling the pandemic (in contrast to many of his colleagues) and is now considered both to be more popular than Johnson, and a better candidate to be Prime Minister. Suddenly, Sunak is the next Conservative leader-in-waiting. Both because of this, and his current job running the Treasury, his views on Brexit have great significance. Yet, as so much of the media’s time and energy have been occupied with the pandemic, Brexit has understandably taken a back seat in recent months. Nonetheless, with a no-deal Brexit potentially just weeks away, it is important to consider the increasingly influential Sunak’s position on the matter.
As might be expected of someone promoted under the Johnson Government, Sunak was a Leaver in 2016. He told his local paper, the Yorkshire Post, that his decision to defy then-Prime Minister David Cameron over the EU was the ‘toughest’ of his career, but was motivated by his previous business career, which saw him work for Goldman Sachs as well as a hedge fund. Sunak is also a protégé of Johnson’s notorious advisor Dominic Cummings, also a hard Brexiteer. When Cummings broke lockdown rules earlier this year, Sunak tweeted in his defence, prompting influential Conservative blogger Tim Montgomerie to reply ‘Rishi has always worked for Dominic Cummings.’ Montgomerie was later to row back on this comment, but given that Javid resigned as Chancellor after reportedly rowing with Cummings, Sunak’s choice as his replacement indicates that he and Cummings enjoy a close working relationship.
However, having been in post for over six months now, there are signs that Sunak is coming round to the Treasury’s way of thinking. He is currently fighting hard to protect the economy during the pandemic, reportedly vetoing a two week lockdown, as a ‘blunt’ instrument that would cause terrible harm to the economy. Likewise, whilst the Treasury as part of the civil service cannot comment publicly, it has long believed to have acted as a block on harder forms of Brexit. Arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg indeed claimed that ‘The Treasury is desperate to stop Brexit.’ That assessment is contentious; nonetheless, given that a no-deal Brexit would have economic ramifications, it would be surprising if it did not want to mitigate these.
Sunak therefore faces a difficult balancing act between the Treasury on the one hand, and his political masters Cummings and Johnson on the other. A recent Sun article underlined this, describing Sunak as providing a ‘reality check’ on the implications of no-deal Brexit. However, a closer reading does not appear to indicate that he will veto it; for Sunak, although a no-deal will make things ‘a bit bumpy’ in the short-term, ‘we’ll get through it.’ Perhaps Sunak and the Treasury consider their battle to avoid harsher lockdown measures to be more important than this one. Or he may have decided that, given his conflicting loyalties, his best option is currently to retain a low profile. Either way, it appears that, while Sunak is not a cheerleader for a no-deal Brexit, nor will he act to stop it.
Given the febrile state of both the country and its political system, looking any further ahead than a few weeks is difficult. Nonetheless, if Rishi Sunak is Britain’s next Prime Minister, it appears he is someone that genuinely believes Britain is better off outside of the EU, but in a way that is more pragmatic than many currently at the top of the Conservative Party. It also appears that Brexit is not the be-all and end-all for him in the way that it has become for Johnson and Cummings, given that it brought them to power. In contrast, Sunak was a low key figure in the 2016 referendum campaign, and in 2020 does not appear to advocate no-deal. Perhaps as Prime Minister, this more balanced approach could help end the Brexit ‘culture war’; as a son of Punjabi immigrants, it would be difficult to accuse him of xenophobia. Yet, due to the events of this year, Brexit has already taken a secondary role. The only way it will not remain so is if a no-deal Brexit causes further economic chaos.
If this happens, Sunak’s meteoric political rise could be followed by an equally swift fall.
Joshua Hockley-Still is a Ph.D. Researcher in Modern Political History at the University of Exeter
Image credit: Flickr No 10 Downing Street, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak walk to the Cabinet Meeting