As Sunak Tries to Move Ahead, He’s Haunted by Prime Ministers Past

LONDON — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tried to recharge Britain’s beleaguered government on Tuesday, shuffling cabinet ministers and creating new departments to focus on science, technology and energy policy. But even as he moves forward, Mr. Sunak is haunted by his two ousted predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, both of whom are mounting noisy rehabilitation campaigns, potentially at his expense.

Mr. Sunak framed his latest moves, just after he marked 100 days in office, as a way to meet goals he set out last month, which include cutting inflation in half, reigniting economic growth and shortening wait times in hospitals. He also named a reliable insider to chair the Conservative Party, after being forced to fire the previous chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, over his personal tax affairs.

But Mr. Sunak’s critics fell into predictable cavils about “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” The Conservative Party, they noted, remains mired behind the opposition Labour Party by double digits in polls. Restructuring government bureaucracy could cause months of policy paralysis. And the drumbeat of bad news, from nationwide strikes to overcrowded emergency rooms, continues without relief.

If that is not enough, he is also being harried by Mr. Johnson and Ms. Truss. Both have gleefully disregarded any notions of fading quietly to the backbenches after their truncated stints in Downing Street. And both are defending their legacies in ways that could raise fresh obstacles for Mr. Sunak.

Boris Johnson during a visit to the U.S. Capitol last week.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

During a visit to Washington last week, Mr. Johnson urged Britain and the United States to supply Ukraine with heavier weapons, including fighter jets — a step Mr. Sunak and the Biden administration have rejected. Political analysts expect he will weigh in on, and could even disrupt, Mr. Sunak’s efforts to break a logjam with the European Union over post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Ms. Truss has resurfaced to defend her free-market tax cuts which, despite their deeply destabilizing effect on the British pound and mortgage rates, still have defenders in some corners of the Conservative Party.

Politics in Britain

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  • Tory Official Ousted: Struggling to dispel an ethical cloud that has hung over his government, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak fired the chairman of the Conservative Party over his personal tax affairs.
  • A New Pledge: In a sweeping speech on Jan. 4, Mr. Sunak laid out a series of promises to restore the country to prosperity, challenging Britons to hold him to account.
  • Worker Strikes: Crippling strikes across multiple industries have Britain’s Conservative government facing a “winter of discontent,” just as a Labour government did 44 years ago.

“It’s obviously far from ideal for Rishi Sunak that two former prime ministers are circling around him,” said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent. “His back is against the wall, and the clock is ticking.”

The cabinet reshuffle reflected Mr. Sunak’s technocratic instincts, economic focus, and sensitivity to criticism from champions of tax cuts — like Ms. Truss — that he lacks a convincing strategy to kick-start economic growth.

But it also underscored Mr. Sunak’s fragile grip on his party and his determination not to weaken it further by alienating colleagues. Unlike many cabinet reshuffles, this one involved no demotions or firings. Having reluctantly removed Mr. Zahawi, he replaced him with Greg Hands, a competent politician short on charisma.

Mr. Sunak named Greg Hands to chair the Conservative Party.Credit…Isabel Infantes/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Though the sprawling business department led by Grant Shapps was broken up, he was given charge of a new ministry responsible for energy security and climate policy. Kemi Badenoch, a rising star on the party’s right who was international trade secretary, kept that portfolio while gaining responsibility for business policy, a change intended to align trade strategy with the priorities of British business.

Rather than sacrificing anyone, the reshuffle brought in a new minister, with Lucy Frazer taking charge of culture, media, and sport.

In some ways, Mr. Sunak’s most eye-catching appointment was that of Lee Anderson as the party’s deputy chairman. A combative, outspoken lawmaker who was a longtime member of the Labour Party before switching to the Conservatives, Mr. Anderson is rarely out of the headlines.

Most recently, he caused outrage by claiming that many people who go to food banks do not need them; they simply lack the cooking and budgeting skills to make their own affordable meals. Such dubious claims have made Mr. Anderson a hero among some on the right, checking another box for Mr. Sunak.

“The prime minister’s room for maneuver is limited economically, and it’s limited politically because he has factions within his party,” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “Reconstructing the government and changing people’s roles is one of the things that he can do, and he’s done it.”

Lucy Frazer was named minister of culture, media and sport.Credit…Andy Rain/EPA, via Shutterstock

Still, Mr. Johnson’s enduring popularity with the Tory grass-roots points up the attenuated nature of Mr. Sunak’s leadership. He lost a campaign for prime minister to Ms. Truss in the summer and is still blamed by many in the party’s rank-and-file for his role in forcing out the scandal-scarred Mr. Johnson last July.

Ms. Truss poses little direct risk to Mr. Sunak, given how conspicuously she flamed out after only 49 days in office. But she has reappeared to publicly defend her planned tax cuts, saying they remained a recipe for accelerating Britain’s economy. Her argument could raise the pressure on Mr. Sunak to cut taxes, just months after his government mothballed Ms. Truss’ agenda.

In a long essay in the Sunday Telegraph over the weekend, Ms. Truss blamed her downfall on virtually everything except herself.

“Fundamentally, I was not given a realistic chance to enact my policies by a very powerful economic establishment, coupled with a lack of political support,” she wrote. “I assumed upon entering Downing Street that my mandate would be respected and accepted. How wrong I was.”

Mr. Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, lasted only 49 days in office. She has resurfaced recently to defend her tax cut proposals.Credit…Tolga Akmen/EPA, via Shutterstock

Few political analysts believe Mr. Sunak’s job is in imminent peril. But a disastrous showing by Conservatives in local elections in May could revive rumors of another party coup.

Mr. Sunak has avoided being drawn into debates with his predecessors. On Tuesday, his aides played up the policy advantages of the new ministries. Mr. Sunak’s attraction to Silicon Valley, and desire to replicate it in Britain, was evident in his creation of a department for science, innovation, and technology.

Mr. Shapps’s energy department seemed especially timely, given Britain’s ordeal with soaring gas prices. It will seek to ensure long-term security of energy supplies, aides said, which could protect the country from future spikes in inflation.

But while the new ministries have logic behind them, shake-ups can distract officials, thrusting them into turf wars over who does what. There is still lingering disruption from the 2020 merger of the foreign office and international development department. In the case of the energy ministry, critics said Mr. Sunak was merely undoing a previous error.

“Seven years after the disastrous decision to abolish the Department of Energy, the Conservatives now admit they got it wrong,” Ed Miliband, who speaks for Labour on climate change, said on Twitter.

Professor Travers said reorganizing departments “says something about political fashion and the government’s priorities.” But he added, “There is vanishingly little evidence that moving responsibilities around and changing names of departments is going to inevitably lead to better government.”

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