What does Sunak’s maths plan tell us? He is already exhausted and out of ideas | Zoe Williams
Back when politics was bad enough that political satire was hard, but not so bleak that it was impossible to laugh at, The Thick of It brought us the “quiet batpeople”. The phrase was concocted during a painful meeting between a group of politicians completely out of ideas, lacking a mission, ambition or really anything. This shower of mediocrities was trying to find the language to appeal to and describe its ideal voters: the ones who hadn’t decided, didn’t really know, weren’t ideological; the voters beloved of Westminster “realists”, who weren’t noisy and didn’t make trouble, but were everyday superheroes. They couldn’t all be Batman, so there they were: the quiet batpeople.
It is nothing new to witness politicians run out of road, live on air, while plugging some dog-awful idea that would be laughed out of a mock election at a secondary school. It’s only 23 short, heady years since Tony Blair wanted the police to punish hooligans by marching them to a cashpoint and demanding £100. Even back then, when the average rowdy was considerably more likely to have £100 than he or she would be now, it was risible. But ever since the batpeople idea was coined, I have been unable to stop myself imagining the meetings in which these schemes were born and then feeling ineffably sad – not for the state of the country, but for the poor people in the room.
In the general run of things, I find it very easy to resist any feelings of sympathy towards Rishi Sunak. Nobody forced him into the highest public office, at the crest of a crisis, without a thought in his head. But then he comes out with compulsory maths until 18. It’s so daft, so unequal to the times, so revealing of his bankruptcy of ideas, so incredibly unforced – is there a secret and powerful maths lobby? – that somewhere between embarrassment on his behalf and fear for the future I feel a trace of pity.
It’s obvious what he is trying to do: appeal to the kind of people who want to bring back national service as well as the people who don’t, which is to say appeal to everybody, with a policy that will change nothing.
It’s plain what this would look like if it happened. The government can’t even recruit the maths teachers it needs at the moment, so it would mean a load of contracts being handed out in a hurry, at great expense, to a bunch of Tory cronies who have never tried to teach maths. Equally clear is that it will never happen, because quiet-batpeople policies never do. It’s actually insulting, at a time when everyone is doing maths all the time (has the country ever been so clued up on the relative cost of boiling a kettle and lighting a candle?), to tout extended numeracy as the answer to anything. But, mainly, all you can hear is this exhausted guy, running on fumes up dead-end lanes.
There is little historical precedent for the way 21st-century Conservatives leave the job of prime minister. In the past, most leaders tried to exit gracefully through the process of a general election, but when you are determined not to get the public involved, you have to wait for a catastrophe, an absolutely unfixable shitshow, to bow out.
Where could Sunak’s disgrace come from? He is too tired to take any epic, Cameronian gambles. He probably won’t get into a parliamentary deadlock, because all his MPs are knackered as well. I doubt there are many parties going on in Downing Street any more – and, besides, they are no longer illegal. It would be hard for him to make an on-the-hoof policy announcement that crashed the economy, because it has already crashed.
Maybe he doesn’t have to wait for a scandal. Maybe his big idea could be: “I’m completely out of ideas; please put me out of my misery, turn up the heating in my swimming pool and let someone else have a go.”