Sunak and the winter of discontent


In the winter of 1978, Britain experienced one of the most turbulent times in its recent history. The freezing temperatures were joined by massive strikes that affected the whole country. The trade unions had responded to inflation with strong mobilisations that ended up dragging down the cabinet of Labour's James Callaghan. This whole crisis, which was dubbed by the British press as "the winter of discontent", ended with Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street after winning the 1979 election.  

Today, several decades later, PM Rishi Sunak is beset by the biggest strikes since the late 1980s. The strikes, which are proving remarkably successful, are among railway workers, border officials, ambulance drivers, nurses, teachers and others who are complaining about the ravages of inflation of over 10 per cent.

So far, Sunak, knowing that a sharp wage hike would aggravate inflationary problems, has refused to offer increases higher than those recommended by the independent body that advises the government on this issue.

In this respect, the Prime Minister has also insisted that British public debt has grown to its highest level since the 1960s, and now stands at 97.5% of GDP. As far as British households are concerned, the outlook is no brighter: the Bank of England's bank rate policy is aggressive in the face of economic gloom, making loans and mortgages more expensive.

However, it is not only the problems of the economy that threaten the Tory government. After more than a decade in power the Conservatives' wear and tear is undeniable.

Recently, the tenant of 10 Downing Street had to sack the minister without portfolio Nadhim Zahawi. This politician, who held the powerful treasury portfolio in Johnson's time, reached an agreement with the British Treasury to regularise, by paying five million pounds, the proceeds from the sale of a company. Despite his resistance, after the publication of the report by the government's ethics adviser (an enviable figure in the British government), he was struck off by Sunak.

The problem is that it's raining on wet ground. The partygate hangover, the Chris Pincher sex scandal, and other scandals, mostly from the Johnson era, are deeply weakening the Conservatives.

The so-called perfect electoral machine was able in 2010, with David Cameron at the helm, to electorally defeat Labour, which had been governing since 1997. They did so with a modern party, evolving on ideological issues that are at the heart of society, and with a profound renewal in the main profiles of the party.

After the triumph of Brexit and Cameron's assumption of responsibility, the party was able to reinvent itself again and again in the form of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, the very brief Liz Truss, and now Rishi Sunak.

It is admirable the capacity for permanent reconstruction of this party, which has been able to reap spectacular electoral majorities over all these years, and is also the ideological vanguard of conservative parties in Europe.

However, the diagnosis right now is really complicated. The UK's role in the world after Brexit has been blurred, the exit from the Union has caused major problems for the country's services and supplies. And another determining factor: unlike Johnson, who had a furious leftist like Corbyn in front of him, Sunak has had the misfortune of having Keir Starmer as his opponent. This reputed ex-prosecutor is showing his mettle, moderation and a centrist profile reminiscent of Tony Blair's Labour, albeit with a more accentuated social discourse.

The next few months will be key to see if there are still options for the Tories in the face of the next elections scheduled for 2024. The foreseeable drop in inflation, the containment of strikes and possible international successes will offer Sunak opportunities with which to try to stop the haemorrhaging.