Who could be the next PM?
Rory Bathgate 2 March 2021
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media
Image courtesy of Number 10 on Flickr
With the pandemic situation slowly improving but continuing to negatively impact the lives of many, and Brexit chaos in full swing, the future of British politics is not the number one concern for a lot of the population. But the volatility of the times call for a good look at our representatives, and despite there being no planned general election, Boris Johnson might not be the party leader come the advent of 2022.
It's time to take a look at the current cabinet and ask ‘who could be the next PM?’.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has long been a role through which MPs line up to be PM; of the last ten Prime Ministers, five have been Chancellor or Shadow Chancellor. Rishi Sunak claims that he does not seek to continue this trend. Asked during a LadBible interview whether he would want to lead the party after Boris Johnson, he responded ‘absolutely not’. Despite this, there are lots to suggest that Mr Sunak, and crucially party members, are angling to elect him the next Tory PM.
Some have already begun to compare Mr Sunak to Tony Blair, a worrying comparison that points both to his clear manner of delivery, as well as the havoc that his propensity for quick decision-making threatens to wreak upon the country. At the start of the furlough scheme, many Conservatives turned to one another with jokes about ‘socialist Sunak’. But the acceptance of bailouts by the more fiscally-concerned Conservative voter is just a flash in the pan. The mood amongst Tories, online at least, seems to be that the temporary bailouts on offer from the treasury will be traded for dyed in the wool austerity come pandemic’s end. Rishi Sunak clearly wants to present himself as the face of support for the UK citizen, but in either the role of Chancellor or PM he will doubtlessly become known as the bearer of bad news for the working-class.
This has already been demonstrated through the exacerbation of the pandemic response brought about by Mr Sunak’s much-publicised Eat Out to Help Out scheme. A University of Warwick study attributed 8-17% of new cases of COVID-19 between August and September to the scheme, a statistic that cannot be better epitomised than in a publicity shoot throughout which Mr Sunak served food and chatted with customers entirely mask-free. With numerous studies pointing to the fact that lower classes are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, Rishi Sunak’s gimmicky attempts to boost popularity come at the relatively silent cost of the disadvantaged majority.
Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence to point towards Mr Sunak’s eventual premiership is not just his popularity within his party but the indifference with which the public views him. When he’s not being praised for providing a cheap night out, he has the uncanny ability to fade into the background for all except those who are paying very close attention to the government’s repeated budget missteps.
The fact of the matter is that the Budget will go above the heads of much of the public. The Independent reports that next month’s Budget may include a ‘stealth tax raid’ in the form of frozen personal income tax allowances, with the £12,500 and £50,000 threshold failing to rise with inflation. Make no mistake: the Conservatives will drag Britons out of this crisis and into record-level poverty, and Rishi Sunak could be the man chosen to lead this charge.
Priti Patel is currently seeking support from Conservative Party members through claims that the government should have enacted stricter border controls at the start of the pandemic, stating ‘I was an advocate of closing them last March’ on a Zoom call to the Conservative Friends of India.
Of course, this kind of governing in hindsight works well in a memoir but is by no means certain to win her support within her own party or with the wider public. Perhaps she is relying on supporters either willing to overlook the facts or purely those who are ignorant enough to forget that she was, indeed, Home Secretary for almost a full year before the pandemic even began, and is therefore partly to blame for the measures that she is now only too eager to complain about. Then again, the more vindictive voter could see something to support in Priti Patel. Those contributing to the rise in anti-migrant sentiment within the UK may be swayed by her more unhinged policies, such as the suggestion that Royal Navy ships could be used to make the Channel Crossing ‘unviable’ by pushing migrant boats back to sea. It’s an idea as insane as it is unlawful, and has been described by defence experts as ‘hysterical’ and ‘completely potty’. Last month she described the Black Lives Matter protests as ‘dreadful’, stating that ‘there are other ways in which people can express their opinions’ whilst displaying more concern for the safety of statues than she ever has for the lives of migrants.
In normal times, all of this would have been enough to hinder her career, if not kill it outright. But the allegations of bullying levelled against her in 2020, which culminated in Boris Johnson’s assertion in November that he had ‘full confidence’ in Ms Patel and the subsequent resignation of his advisor on ministerial conduct, proved her apparent indestructibility. The PM seems to continually gamble that public opinion will move on from his cabinet’s scandals quickly, and in the case of Ms Patel, this is apparently the case. A self-proclaimed ‘massive Thatcherite’, she could certainly make moves for the support of the hard-line backbench, particularly in the face of growing party anger over the government’s supposed moving of the goalposts for pandemic restrictions. Morally objectionable, prone to outrageous suggestions and viewed by many as ruthless, Priti Patel has all the trappings of a Tory wet dream and could herald the next chapter of Conservative leadership.
Let’s be honest: there’s more chance of Larry the Downing Street Cat becoming the next PM than Matt Hancock. The most impressive thing he’s done is perform so shambolically as the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care as to wipe the memory of Jeremy Hunt from the minds of many, save perhaps the NHS workers cursing the former and the latter in equal measure. 50% person and 50% Thunderbirds puppet, Mr Hancock appears to have been born with a chronic shame deficiency, able to publicly brag about providing children with free school meals after having voted to keep them hungry.
In recent days he’s upped the ante through policies such as the ten-year prison sentence for those choosing to lie on their recently-visited countries list when prompted as part of the UK’s more stringent COVID-19 border controls. You would be hard-pressed to find someone arguing for more lax border security during the pandemic, but the punishment is extreme to the extent of being unenforceable. Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer was quick to brand the policy an ‘empty threat’, citing his experience as a barrister, whilst in The Telegraph, former supreme court justice Lord Sumption asked ‘Does Mr Hancock really think that non-disclosure of a visit to Portugal is worse than the large number of violent firearms offences or sexual offences involving minors, for which the maximum is seven years?’
Such bipartisan condemnation of policy says all one needs to know about Matt Hancock, who seems increasingly to have been installed in government as some kind of cruel joke, at the expense of the country and to the benefit of future satirists. It seems the nation decided long ago that the man is simply unlikeable. If Boris Johnson is the schoolyard bully, Matt Hancock is his sickly sidekick, destined for – if not obscurity – the kind of interview slots saved for when a news program has time to kill before the start of a press conference. All the Telegraph puff-pieces and teary-eyed clips in the world can’t shake that image.
Of course, there is always the chance that Boris Johnson could stick around for the foreseeable. While his failures are plain to see, the man seems to be impervious to truly lasting consequences, forever followed by droves of supporters willing to chant ‘he’s doing his best’ as the death toll rises ever higher beyond 100,000. Certainly, he has maintained support through his last-minute Brexit deal, but as the reality of this cack-handed economic and diplomatic contract sets in – as it is already doing for the fisheries and the people of Kent – one might find the public turning firmly against him. Physically, Mr Johnson appears to have aged ten years, and his PMQ performance has been one-note since late September. When he isn’t bragging about the so-called ‘toughest restrictions in the world’ at the border, he points to the ineffectiveness of the opposition as if it doesn’t reflect back on his poor record as leader. Dare I hope that the man will be given the condemnation at the polls that he truly deserves? Only time will tell.