When Rishi Sunak was chancellor, Treasury aides and ministers said he was deeply entrenched in the detail, able to refer to spreadsheets or reports by chapter number by heart. The job of prime minister is a very different one, which his closest aides in No 10 say he is starting to understand means choosing very specific priorities.
Sunak has suggested to MPs who have seen him recently that he has three main priorities for his premiership: stabilizing the economy, tackling small boat crossings in the Channel, and easing the pressures on the NHS.
The striking thing about those priorities are that none are Sunak’s own vision or even really his choosing. It is government as management – almost the opposite of Liz Truss, who governed by ideology above all else.
But Sunak’s managerial style is probably his only survival route as the severity of the crises will affect the next two years of his premiership.
There is precious little in the autumn statement that tells us anything about Sunak’s ideas for growth, with investment zones heavily diluted, planning reforms at a standstill, and an unwillingness to pursue green investment including maintaining the ban on onshore wind.
For the most part, he is acting like a prime minister who has grasped that he is likely to have just two years in No 10 and precious little time to build a legacy other than sealing up some holes in a sinking boat.
That sense of a government in pure survival mode has filtered out to Conservative MPs – who are adopting their own tactics. Some have checked out entirely, seen in the muted response to the autumn statement, where Conservative MPs nodded through the tax rises having previous railed against them under Boris Johnson.
Others are ditching any pretence at appeal to anything other than their own local issues. The most obvious illustration of that is a big rebellion brewing on the leveling up billwhere almost 50 MPs have signed a move to abolish all housing targets.
Labor will not back the amendment and in normal times a government could face down the rebels and tell them where to go.
But sources in the department as well as MPs have suggested that the prime minister is not prepared to risk another hole in the boat. His authority rests on being the consensus choice as prime minister; he derives his mandate solely from MPs.
If Sunak should lose his parliamentary majority at an early vote – and have to rely on Labor – then he effectively no longer has his mandate. So MPs expect a compromise to be found on housebuilding targets, which could lead to further economic paralysis.
There are many other issues where this could continue to trip up Sunak – the online harms bill where MPs, including some in his own cabinet, have expressed concerns about “legal but harmful” definitions of content in the bill.
Another rebellion is brewing on onshore wind – backed by Boris Johnson, Truss and her leveling up secretary Simon Clarke, as well as MPs across the party. And that row could run on longer, with the MP Chris Skidmore delivering a net zero review in early January.
Sunak must also soon decide what to do with the energy price freeze – for homes and businesses – when the scheme comes to an end in April and with predictions still of eye-watering rises.
There is also still no letup in MPs’ anger about small boats crossing the Channel – and the necessity of housing refugees in more and more hotels, meaning the accommodation is in some MPs’ constituencies for the first time.
And the NHS has not yet reached the peak of the winter crisis, with suggestions already that the government needs to consider military assistance for the health service or reopening Nightingale hospitals.
All of those issues must be tackled before Sunak can even start to think about what his own agenda might be. But he also then faces the prospect at the next election of having precious little to say – beyond spelling out even more spending cuts.