Rishi Sunak has surrounded himself with yes-men. What he really needs is a Willie | Simon Jenkins

Posted on November 7, 2022Comments Off on Rishi Sunak has surrounded himself with yes-men. What he really needs is a Willie | Simon Jenkins

Rishi Sunak needs help. Most prime ministerial decisions are no-brainers, as in reversing a mini-budget or sacking a Jacob Rees-Mogg. Others are strictly personal. These have recently included whether to return Suella Braverman to the Home Office, allow Gavin Williamson into the cabinet or not to go to Cop27. They have sorely damaged Sunak’s claim to “integrity and accountability” and are widely regarded as needing urgent reversal, as has already happened over Cop27.When Sunak arrived in Downing Street he brought with him a cohort of Downing Street aides who could have come from central casting. They are young, sneakered, tieless image-makers, and fiercely loyal to him. They are products of today’s Westminster, a monastic enclosure of special advisers, thinktanks and lobby groups isolated from the world outside. They have created “Brand Rishi” as a video hero, a cliched politician of the metaverse. Thus the Braverman and Williamson decisions are interpreted as merely the results of an algorithm for a balanced cabinet.When Penny Mordaunt was running for leader she quoted Thatcher’s famous line that every prime minister “needs a Willie”. Mordaunt appeared to think the reference was to gender; Thatcher was, of course, referring her much-loved mentor Willie Whitelaw and did not realise (until later) the double-entendre. But Thatcher’s point, that good leaders need friends speaking truth to power, was strongly meant. Nothing did more to undermine Britain’s last three prime ministers than their lack of a Willie, of the wisdom, the lessons and the caution long valued by holders of high office but absent from the sycophants often crowded into Downing Street.Any new prime minister should read Thatcher’s memoir of her first appointments. Having spent little time in high office she judged her colleagues time and again for how well they did their previous jobs – hardly an eccentric criterion. Politics is an avalanche of circumstance, of daily mishaps. There is no substitute for learning its lessons. I have never interviewed a former prime minister who did not say: “I only wish I could have my time over again.”Thatcher made plenty of mistakes but she survived and achieved what she set out to do. She lived with a stockade of advisers – Whitelaw, Peter Carrington, Keith Joseph, Robert Armstrong, Bernard Ingham, Alan Walters, Charles Powell and others – who she knew would tell her what they thought. They stopped her privatising the NHS. They failed to stop her poll tax, but they surely tried.Every sensible prime minister has had an “honest friend”. Winston Churchill had Norman Brook, who at least claimed to prevent his worst decisions. Harold Macmillan had John Wyndham, Harold Wilson had Lady Falkender, Tony Blair had Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. The nearest Boris Johnson came to a Willie was Dominic Cummings, whose zest for change was enormous but whose experience of its route map was zero.In each of these cases, the individual chemistries were different and the outcomes not always happy. But success, for a prime minister, is now near impossible. Luck and the demons of publicity bedevil every decision. All a leader can do is widen the range of advice, loyal and possibly not too loyal, available to Downing Street on a daily basis.Sunak has come to office as one of the more intelligent, decent and sober figures to lead a British government in a long time. He inherits a starved and creaking public sector defective in almost all departments. He and his chancellor respond to every policy question that all is “up for reconsideration”. We only know that they are about to inflict on the country a devastating austerity, which will require meticulous leadership in every Whitehall department. Yet the talent pool for that leadership has been devastated by the past decade of Tory party infighting and defenestration. In the past 10 years, Britain has seen five prime ministers, plus seven chancellors, six home secretaries and 10 education secretaries. It has been government as a joke. In the process, ministerial experience and the essence of wisdom have been exterminated. Yet on parliament’s backbenches are sitting men and women of ability whose only crime was their disbelief in Brexit and Boris Johnson. It is hard to believe Sunak could not gather a handful of them together to sit round his fire of an evening and give him the benefit of their advice. He badly needs a Willie.

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