Sunak discovers that politics isn’t like business

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Rishi Sunak supported Brexit before Boris Johnson did. He argued for looser lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. He put a great office of state in the hands of as strident a conservative as Suella Braverman. Having inherited a far-fetched plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda, he didn’t just retain it, but staked his reputation on implementing it. This past autumn, in a conference speech of dismaying silliness, he framed the last 30 years of British governance, which encompasses Brexit and a huge increase in the prison population, as a soft-left consensus, ripe for overturning.

In exchange for all these services to its cause, the Conservative right allows Sunak not a week of peace or a word of thanks. Most leaders of the party have had to bow to these zealots from time to time, but none has given so much in return for so little.

What explains his behaviour? How to account for his fruitless but ongoing appeasement of hardliners? Want of better options, perhaps. And he does believe in some of the policies. But it might also be relevant that he is the most business-minded prime minister that Britain has ever had.

Like a lot of trespassers into politics from the private sector (Donald Trump is the chief exception) Sunak doesn’t understand fanatics. How could he? In finance, his former line of work, everyone is, almost by definition, open to a deal. And once it is negotiated, it is enforceable through the commercial courts. There couldn’t be a worse grounding for politics, where neither condition obtains. Here is a world of entrenched positions (whether tribal or philosophical) and no third-party enforcement mechanism for those pragmatic compromises that do get made. No wonder he treats the right as just another market participant seeking terms. He has spent his political career offering half a loaf to people who want the whole boulangerie.

His commercial background shows up in other ways, too, such as his rather sweet belief that being good at getting things done will save him. His executive record isn’t bad. He has cut the number of irregular small-boat crossings of the Channel. Inflation is well down. He is the first prime minister since 2016 who is up to the job. His mistake is to assume that such technical competence matters to political animals as it would to investors in a business.

This is déformation professionnelle: the habit of seeing the world though the lens of one’s own trade or domain of expertise. Sunak isn’t the only business-oriented person who is at a loss when confronted with fanaticism. One reason the Republican party was so easy for Trump to pick off in the last decade was that it had the mental habits of the corporate C-suite and the Chamber of Commerce. Party grandees assumed that Trump was a rational actor who had a price: flattery, fame, a measure of influence. Pay it, and he’d be their creature. They had little concept of the zeal of his movement, because they had little concept of zeal. Even Mitt Romney (MBA, Bain Capital) took a while to understand that here was a force beyond negotiation.

A conversation that will stick with me from 2023 was with a commodities trader in London. Sanctions against Russia were inconveniencing him to the extent that he had to divert his business through the Gulf, poor guy. This “mad war”, he said, by which he meant not so much the invasion of Ukraine as the western-backed response to it, needed a quick territorial settlement.

Now, leave aside the moral question of what we should think of someone who enjoys a western address and western freedoms while bucking western sanctions. Why does he assume that Russia would honour the settlement? That it wouldn’t just regroup and come back for more? I encounter this cut-a-deal view of the war from business people more often than from other tribes, and it occurs to me that their mistake isn’t callousness. It is innocence. It is a belief that everyone has a transactional cast of mind. Fanaticism — total commitment to a doctrine or a cause — is alien to their worldly ken.

Sunak doesn’t always appease the right. He might have been prime minister earlier, but refused to promise unfunded tax cuts. He hasn’t taken the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights, as Braverman demands. To a great extent, though, and starting with Brexit, he rode the tiger that now devours him. If he has an excuse, it is that Stanford business school, Goldman Sachs and the hedge fund world were the worst possible places in which to learn a central lesson of politics: some people have no price, or at least no price that it is conscionable to pay.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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