After Rishi Sunak had emerged victorious from the ludicrous week-long Tory leadership battle with quasi-candidate Boris Johnson and no-hoper Penny Mordaunt, he delivered a speech in Downing Street in which he promised to “lead our country into the future”. It was a conscious attempt to distance himself from the utter shambles that had gone before, under both Johnson’s and Liz Truss’ watch (despite the fact that he was in the heart of government for most of it).
Speaking just last week, on 25 October, his other promises, which are worth noting now, included a desire to “unite our country not with words, but with action” and “create a future worthy of the sacrifices so many have made”. How’s that going so far, just eight days later?
He has already made one screeching U-turn on a matter that you could argue is quite important to whether we have a future at all, the climate crisis. In a move that seemed monumentally misjudged at the time, on Friday, just three days into his reign, Sunak announced that he was going to be too busy to attend the COP27 climate summit in Sharm El Sheikh. A No10 spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister is not expected to attend COP27 and this is due to other pressing domestic commitments including preparations for the Autumn Budget. The UK will be fully represented by other senior ministers as well as COP President Alok Sharma.”
It’s hard to fathom why, even on the shallowest of political levels, this was deemed to be a good idea by his advisors. The nature of gatherings like COP, as we saw in Glasgow last year, is that the real work, the real crunch negotiations, take place amongst government negotiators, often before the summit itself. All Sunak needed to do was show face - drop in for a day or two, make a speech, glad-hand a few world leaders, say the right things and fly home.
It also looked like a bizarre move when you consider that two-thirds of people in the UK (67%) are worried about climate change and its effects, according to the latest YouGov polling. While it’s true that the economy is the most important issue for the majority of the public just now, at least appearing as if you’re serious about taking action on the environment would be a relatively easy win for Sunak, and it’s hard to imagine voters believing that a short trip to Egypt would entail that he’s not focused on dealing with the current fiscal challenges.
However, it took a weekend of intense criticism, much of which came from his own party, before Sunak realised that he should probably go to COP27 after all. And so today, four days since his decision not to attend, came the U-turn.
That’s not the strong, principled leadership he was trumpeting in his maiden speech as Prime Minister. It’s the kind of weak-willed, any-way-the-wind-blows opportunism that his blonde-haired predecessor was infamous for.
In his first week in Downing Street, Sunak has already succeeded in embarrassing the UK on the world stage. It’s not quite the same as Matt Hancock eating bugs in the Australian jungle, but it’s not a good look, coming the week after the UN Environment Programme reported that there is now “no credible pathway” to prevent average temperatures rising by more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - the key goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.