Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a Tokyo bureaucrat who, upon discovering that he has just months to live, devotes his final days to building a children’s playground. The movie is the subject of two modern remakes. The first stars Bill Nighy, the second Rishi Sunak.
Like Watanabe, Sunak has a terminal diagnosis: happily for him his expected demise is political not physical. The Conservatives trail badly in the opinion polls and it is highly likely that the party will be defeated at the next election.
The good news is, like Watanabe, Sunak and his ministers are in a position to make real and lasting change over the next two years. In private, Sunak tells his allies to draw comfort from John Major’s surprise victory in 1992. But ministers should draw as much inspiration from Major during 1992 to 1997, even though that period ended in record-breaking defeat. It was then that Major enacted a series of significant and lasting changes to the UK. Some are superficially trivial but far-reaching, like the creation of the National Lottery. Others are obviously large and significant, like his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process and the 1997 ban on handguns.
Watanabe’s final success in getting a playground built is, as it happens, a much more realistic insight into how politics and delivery works than anything you will see in political dramas like Baron Noir or The West Wing, however enjoyable they might be. Effective politicians have projects they pursue single-mindedly: government rewards monomania and punishes politicians who try to do too much at once.
The Equality Act of 2010, another major piece of legislation produced by a government in its dying days, only made it to the statute book thanks to the personal commitment of the minister in charge, Harriet Harman. It underpins all UK equalities law and has had a far-reaching and continuing influence on public policy. It is a reminder that one of the ways Sunak can still make change by appointing the right junior ministers. It is at minister-of-state level that so many projects are driven forward and completed.
The bad news for Sunak is that unlike Watanabe, who kept his illness secret from his colleagues, the prime minister’s internal opponents know that he is fatally wounded. That is a particular problem because the British premiership is a relatively weak position, institutionally.
Prime ministers have no budget, and the ability to dismiss ministers is their only real power. And as Major once complained, sacking ministers only swells the ranks of the “dispossessed and the never-possessed” on the backbenches. A former Downing Street aide once compared the powers of a prime minister to that of a parent: in reality you have few sanctions and once you have grounded someone or revoked their pocket money one week, you can’t easily do it again until the following week rolls around.
As a result, any obsessive focus that Sunak has is most likely to succeed if it commands broad support in his own party or, better still, if there is consensus on the other side of politics too. This is one reason why Jeremy Hunt’s decision to ask Patricia Hewitt, a Blair-era health secretary, and Michael Barber, a Blair-era education adviser, to lead two policy reviews is clever. It increases the chance of the policies that emerge from those processes finding champions in the Labour party and not just among Conservatives.
Then there are measures that don’t require the prime minister to legislate or manage his internal opponents. Major’s Downing Street Declaration, which disavowed any “selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland, cost no money and didn’t require a parliamentary vote. But it helped to create the space for the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland is an area where Sunak could show similar leadership. He doesn’t have to assemble a parliamentary majority against constant confrontation between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol; he just needs to stop fomenting it.
Finally, Sunak should remember that small things can have a huge impact. Major’s creation of the National Lottery has had a massive effect on the cultural and sporting life of the UK. As Watanabe demonstrated, a terminal diagnosis need not mean the end of your achievements. It can be a spur to do something greater. Sunak and Hunt will hope their remake manages to be similarly inspiring, even if the ending remains just as bleak.