In the week it emerged that King Charles has evicted Prince Harry from his residence in Windsor Park, the ancient royal hunting terrain west of London became a second home for Rishi Sunak: the place where the British leader relaunched his premiership.
On Monday, at the luxury Fairmont Windsor Park Hotel, Sunak sealed the historic deal with the EU over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading regime, drawing a line under years of grim relations between Britain and its closest trading partner.
Three days later, Sunak brought his Conservative MPs back to the same hotel for an “away day”, claiming heroically he had “got Brexit done” and telling them to end years of bitter infighting. “Voters won’t forgive us if we inflict more psychodrama on them,” he warned.
The 42-year-old prime minister can only hope. His Tory party typically trails the Labour opposition by 20 points in the polls, appears exhausted after 13 years in office, has gone through three prime ministers in a matter of months and must face the country in an election by the end of next year.
Sunak’s election supremo Isaac Levido told the assembled Tory MPs that “there is a mountain to climb, but we have a path to victory” — but only if they fall in line behind their leader. The prime minister hopes that events this week have at least got him to base camp. The deal he struck with Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, played into the image that Downing Street wants to project: “Rishi the Problem Solver.”
Sunak certainly has a lot of problems to solve. “There’s a pipeline of shit left for him by his predecessors,” said one cabinet minister. “It’s all ending up on his desk.” Boris Johnson and Liz Truss bequeathed him a demoralised party and an economy in a state of nervous exhaustion, yet they still circle at Westminster, waiting for him to stumble.
Born in Southampton in 1980 to Asian parents who came to Britain from east Africa in the 1960s, Sunak was educated at the elite fee-paying Winchester College. The ultimate technocrat, he learnt his analytical skills at Oxford university, Stanford and Goldman Sachs before being elected to parliament in 2015. He is now deploying them in the hopes of clearing up some of the mess he inherited.
It is said by some Tory MPs that Sunak is “not very good at politics”. For example, as chancellor, he resisted Labour calls for a windfall tax on energy companies and opposed a popular campaign by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford on free school meals, before eventually caving in.
Sunak, who married into one of the richest families in India and has a home in Santa Monica, also backed Brexit, taking a west coast view of the EU as a sclerotic, bureaucratic behemoth in an age of data and innovation.
Where Sunak can deliver is on the detail. Former colleagues at the Treasury, where he was chancellor during the Covid pandemic, recall how he painstakingly constructed “one of the best furlough schemes in the world”. On the crucial weekend, amazed officials say he offered to help HM Revenue & Customs with the coding to deliver the policy.
Levido’s electoral doctrine likewise aims to present Sunak as someone who can achieve set tasks — such as bringing order to the economy and stopping the small boats bringing migrants across the English Channel. Fortunately for Sunak, Truss set a low bar for competence.
During his time in 10 Downing Street, the prime minister has immersed himself in the detail of the deal to end the intractable Northern Ireland protocol dispute. “I think it’s been really helpful to have someone getting into it — it means you can push the other side,” said one official involved in the talks.
Some ministers privately complain that Sunak suffers from being a micromanager. Aides admit he has been known to rewrite press releases. A policy intended to curb illegal migration, due in “the new year” has still not been delivered, as the prime minister gets ever deeper into the legal minutiae.
A self-confessed “data nerd” — his favourite data set features freight movements on the US railroad network — he also does personal relations well, taking the trouble to individually thank the EU’s negotiating team for concluding the deal on Northern Ireland.
Von der Leyen, who called him “Dear Rishi” on Monday, believed she could do business with him. Emmanuel Macron, French president, texted him on Monday about a forthcoming UK-French summit, while Sunak waited for von der Leyen in Windsor.
The recent premiership of Mario Draghi in Italy has shown that sometimes a technocrat in charge is needed to sort out the mess. Britain last year found itself in a similar situation. But while Sunak may have been the right person at the right time, as one minister said: “At some point he’ll need a big idea.”
For now though, Tory MPs believe things are finally moving in the right direction. “It has been a bloody good week,” said one senior Tory MP. A party rebellion over the Brexit deal has fizzled out, Johnson has been routed.
For Sunak, Windsor has become his happy place. As he told MPs, dutifully attired in “smart casual” dress, he had done “a recce” earlier in the week. “I can assure you that it is a cracking place: good food, great views and very conducive to reaching an agreement.”