Rishi Sunak reminds us that sometimes failure is the only option

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What should politicians do when they have no winning moves left? Rishi Sunak’s allies may have a superficially plausible account about how most of the damage to the party happened before he became prime minister: it was Partygate that broke Boris Johnson’s credibility, and Liz Truss’s 49-day premiership that flattened the Tory reputation for economic competence. Although Sunak’s choices have made his party’s predicament worse, all they have done on their own is turn the Conservative problem from “really, really bad” to “really, really, really bad”.

This is true — but the difficult truth for Sunak is he is not blameless, either. Partygate damaged Johnson’s standing but it was Sunak’s resignation that destroyed his government. In choosing not to vote to sanction his former boss, Sunak gave tacit license to the attacks on members of his own party who served on the investigating committee and missed his best chance to establish himself as a fresh new leader. It was Sunak, too, who not only failed to defeat Truss in the leadership election, but chose to face her among party members despite it being obvious that he had no hope of beating her. That’s not to say that Sunak’s chances of beating Penny Mordaunt were materially better, but there would have been no “Mordaunt Budget” and no self-made market crisis that the Tory party’s political standing may take years to recover from.

Given all that, it is not quite clear why I hear and read so frequently from Conservative MPs that the party needs a “vision” to save it from disaster. Sunak’s last vision was him moving the party further away from the ground it fought and won the last election on — a disaster. His previous vision was of him defeating Truss — a mirage. And before that, he imagined that a country that had rightly grown tired of Johnson’s character wanted a change of approach. The last thing the Conservative party needs is for Sunak to start having visions again.

The only thing that could turn around the Tory party’s fortunes now isn’t a vision: it is time travel. Just as Labour lost the 2019 election during the course of 2018, when Jeremy Corbyn equivocated over the Salisbury poisoning and a group of Labour MPs resolved to break away and form a new party, sometimes a political party runs out of winning moves long before the game is over.

Given that Sunak is unlikely to find a Tardis at the bottom of the Downing Street garden, his best remaining moves are to hope for some kind of Labour implosion (which, to be fair, has not proved beyond that party throughout its history) and to focus on defending as many seats as he can. He might also want to sound appropriately contrite for the failures of recent years.

But the inability to accept that the game is up, that you have made poor strategic choices and are now in the business of cutting your losses, is one that organisations in general tend to struggle with. In the private sector, one reason why calling in the administrators or being taken over by a hedge fund can be agents of organisational renewal is they bring in new leadership that has nothing to lose by admitting that the previous course of action was a mistake.

So deep-rooted is the aversion to admitting that your plans have failed — that they can’t be revived and that you are now in the business of selling something for pennies on the dollar — that some studies of organisational difficulty don’t even have a separate stage for organisational collapse. Similarly, public conversations about a political party’s strategy have to pretend that “winning” is always an option.

One exception can be found in the work of the researcher Steven Jay Gross of Temple University. He categorises the challenges that an educational institution’s leadership can face using “turbulence theory”. This models the level of disruption from “light” turbulence, or ordinary day-to-day difficulties such as a school suffering from geographic isolation, all the way to “extreme” turbulence, when the institution’s very existence is in trouble. As it happens, what helped Gross devise this scale was being on a plane itself experiencing severe to extreme turbulence.

As any experienced pilot knows, sometimes turbulence is so bad that your job is no longer to complete your journey, but to head for the nearest airfield and land. Sunak is suffering from extreme turbulence. The best thing he could now do for his party is to aim to reduce its losses and its embarrassment, both of which are best served by having an election as soon as possible.

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