Rishi Sunak and Britain’s Post-Brexit Fairy Tales

Photograph Source: Rory Arnold / No10 Downing Street – OGL 3

Much mirth is expressed over President Joe Biden mispronouncing the new Prime Minister’s name as “Rashee Sanook”. Many see this as showing how the merry-go-round of British leaders has confused the rest of the world. Some take up the opportunity to sideswipe Biden, saying that he was pretty confused to begin with.

I doubt if it matters that much: world leaders tend to know surprisingly little about allied and hostile states because they single-mindedly focus on their own domestic politics. Biden’s attention will be fixed these days on the midterm congressional elections and his own prospects in the presidential election of 2024. More important for Rishi Sunak will be the real standing of Britain, regardless of name recognition or lack of it.

A telling but negative omen about his abilities is perhaps not receiving enough attention because of the wave of relief that Liz Truss has gone from Downing Street and Boris Johnson is not going to re-enter it. There is upbeat talk of “grown-ups” taking charge at last and encouraging recollections of Sunak’s success in mitigating the economic impact of the pandemic. He is presenting himself as the cool-headed financial expert thankfully at the helm with the skill and experience to avoid the approaching rocks.

But keep in mind that Sunak backed Brexit. He voted to leave the EU, even without a withdrawal agreement. That is one reason why Steve Baker and many Brexit leaders gave him decisive backing last weekend. On the most critical economic decision facing Britain since 1945, the new Prime Minister was decisively on the side of those who claimed that the country would have a better future outside the EU.

Sunak’s jibe at Truss during the summer Tory leadership campaign that she was indulging in “fairy-tale economics” has been ceaselessly replayed on television in the past few days. But no channel I have seen is showing Sunak telling even more disastrous “fairy tales” about the advantages to Britain of putting up trade barriers with its largest market.

The devastating impact of Brexit was highlighted this month by Mark Carney, who was for seven years head of the Bank of England. He cited a couple of damning statistics. Asked in an interview about the economic consequences of Brexit, he said: “Put it this way, in 2016 the British economy was 90 per cent the size of Germany’s. Now it is less than 70 per cent. And that calculation was made before today.”

The Brexit referendum vote and the turmoil that followed accelerated the British decline caused by a decade of austerity. The country became less and less capable of sustaining external shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine war – and its own government’s divisions and contortions.

Sunak presents himself as a safe pair of hands after the Truss and Johnson comic opera, but he is complicit as a true believer in a decision that almost all economic experts agree has done nothing but self-harm to Britain. He may get a sympathy vote as he inherits deep problems, but he shares in responsibility for creating them in the first place.

Brexit revived the Irish question, which bedevilled British politics for centuries and now threatens the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998. The dispute about the Northern Ireland Protocol is in reality about Irish partition, which has turned into an international issue with which Sunak has no good options.

Go too far in meeting the anti-Protocol demands of the Tory right and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and he alienates the Irish Republic, EU and – most significantly for the UK – the US. He will presumably try to fudge and delay negotiations to avoid a trade war with the EU. But any dispute involving Northern Ireland has so many moving parts that it is largely insoluble and has its own momentum outside the control of Westminster governments – as many British prime ministers have learned to their cost.

Immigration is another dangerous issue which is not quite what it appears. Many supported Brexit and the Tories because they wanted immigration to go down, but instead it has risen spectacularly, doubling to 1.1 million to June this year compared with 2018-19.

The Government has yet to be hit by a bigger dispute over this because public attention is focused on the 38,000 people illegally crossing the channel in small boats and not on the far larger figure for legal immigrants.

Sunak may increase legal immigration to encourage growth but continue to publicise deportation to Rwanda as a gimmick to pretend that the Government is trying to limit immigration. This policy was beginning to shake apart in the last days of Truss, as shown by her last-minute sacking of the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. Her reappointment by Sunak suggests it may be resurrected.

Standing tall on Ukraine will be one of Sunak’s easier tasks, but an endless war in Ukraine, with every sign of the conflict escalating, means continued high oil and gas prices. Neither Britain nor the EU has much idea of how to break the deadlock in Ukraine, except to hope for a comprehensive Russian defeat or the overthrow of President Vladimir Putin.

As in Afghanistan and Iraq, British policy will remain in lockstep with the White House, regardless of Biden’s inability to remember the British Prime Minister’s correct name.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).