Tonthink about it As the political equivalent of fleeing to safety. Just as investors have swapped stocks for government bonds in a market downturn, British voters have taken an interest in technocrats after years of chaos. Bobby Duffy of King’s College London leads the UK part of the World Values Study, a survey of global public opinion. In the 2022 version, some 61% of Brits said it would be a good system “to let experts rather than the government make decisions”, up 20 percentage points from 1999.A similar trajectory can be seen in the rich world, but Brits prefer technocracy at the top G7, after Moroccans and Nigerians.
As a result, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has far more appeal than the Conservatives (and is on a par with Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer). When asked to summarize Mr. Sunak, officials cited a photo of him buried in a folder taken on the deck of a decommissioned aircraft carrier during a recent visit to San Diego. The message is clear: Mr Sunak is a workaholic and a problem solver, not even Pacific Fleet toys distract him from his homework. He is, however, a strange eccentric form. Mr Sunak offers a technocratic but with Conservative character.
His promotion in Downing Street was technocratic. After losing the Tory leadership election to Liz Truss last summer, he was rushed into the top job six weeks later after she blew up a Phnom Penh market. Think of him as her Silvio Berlusconi’s Mario Monti. “Mistakes were made,” he said of her tenure. His job is to “fix them”. Since then, he has treated the government like a turnaround plan for a failing business. He laid out specific goals and timetables — lowering inflation, reducing waiting lists for medical services and curbing small boat migration. He was quick to mend international relations strained by Brexit.
He brought technocratic discipline to Downing Street. Officials cite staggering productivity; his mantra is “run as fast as you can.” Boris Johnson’s red-box documents are said to have often sat unread outside his flat while Mr Sunak pulled reams of data and analysis from civil servants and interrogated footnotes. “He prefers to cook,” said an official in charge of policymaking. His speech was short but memorable. An anthology of political quotes will hardly contain Sunakism.
To any middle manager in a big company, these traits might seem unremarkable; in the Conservatives, they regarded him as a miracle. The historian David Edgerton has written that Brexit is one of the symptoms of the Tories’ estrangement from modern British capitalism. Another reason is that the practices of high-performing companies seem exotic.A graduate of Stanford Business School, Mr Sunak is the first prime minister since Lord North in the 18th century to study abroad and the first to hold a MBA. He was considered by his colleagues to be a curious person because he used words such as “ask1″, and knows how to operate a Bloomberg terminal, which suggests he’s more about Westminster, which is a sleepy place full of worn out carpets and tumblers Jam and custard.
But even if Mr Sunak emerges from the ranks of politicians, he is not a typical technocrat. He began his political career by arguing against the importance of expert opinion. As a young backbencher, he backed Brexit not out of romance but as an investment. “I’m not ideological about it … I sat down and pored over the numbers, kind of analytically,” he said. As chancellor, he opposed further covid-19 lockdowns backed by government scientists after reading a competing analysis of infection data prepared by JP Morgan. His methods may be eccentric, but his conclusions mirror the instincts of his less bookish Conservative colleagues.
Despite Mr Sunak’s reputation as a “manipulator”, his government has shown an appetite for gimmicks. If Mr Sunak succeeds in curbing cross-Channel migration, it will not be because of high-profile plans to deport migrants to Rwanda or place them on barges. Neither will reduce the number of border crossings this summer. His attacks on antisocial behavior — higher fines for litterers, making thugs pick up litter in jumpsuits, banning the use of laughing gas — are the political equivalent of jazz by the standards. Just as every pub pianist plays “Round Midnight” at night, every British prime minister has announced a crackdown on loitering.
Worst of all, there are many areas where Mr Sunak offers no solutions at all, on the grounds that they are politically off limits. Relations between the prime minister and the murderous parliamentary party he leads are remarkably smooth.This is partly because the Conservative Party CongressmanPeople came to appreciate competency, but also because he let them advance in home building, online policing, and immigration as the price of stability. It will not matter how much data Mr Sunak orders from civil servants if a dozen backbenchers are finally able to provide their own answers.
Long-time cabinet minister Michael Gove is remembered for claiming that Britons were “sick of experts” ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum. His supporters say their people are being misquoted; Mr Gove has objected to “experts from organizations using acronyms saying they know what is best but keep getting it wrong”. This is not a condemnation of expertise per se, but a call to harness it and subject it to political control.
This is the best way to learn about Mr Sunak’s tenure as prime minister. He was a man with technocratic habits, but those habits served a political purpose of seizing power and taming a ruthless party. Tim Bell, author of a New History of the contemporary Tories, warned against viewing Mr Sunak as a centrist passenger in Johnson’s wayward government. Mr. Bell noted that he was an active participant in the system. Mr. Sunak is brilliant. His greatest might be how he hides his ambitions behind a technocratic veneer. ■
Read more from our UK politics columnist Bagehot:
National Swing Man, old and new tribes of British voters (April 5)
Editing Roald Dahl’s Sensitivity Is Stupid (March 23)
It’s too easy to run an illegal business in the UK (March 16)
Also: How the Bagehot column got its name