Nearly man to next PM: Rishi Sunak’s rapid change of political fortune

Former chancellor looked finished when he lost to Liz Truss – but out of chaos has come a ‘coronation’

One of the many unlikely knock-on effects of Liz Truss’s ultra-brief time as prime minister is the fact that when her successor walks into No 10, the political obituaries that calmly wrote him off as the nearly man of modern UK politics will be just seven weeks old.

Had Boris Johnson successfully returned it would have been viewed, with reason, as an extraordinary and unprecedented comeback. But in some ways Rishi Sunak’s career resurrection has been just as unlikely.

Sunak’s loss to Truss in a vote of Tory members announced on 5 September was not crushing, at 57% to 43%. But the moment the contest moved from Conservative MPs to the party rank and file, he never once looked like winning.

As defeat edged closer, Sunak was cast as the Michael Heseltine of 2020s politics: like Margaret Thatcher’s would-be nemesis, a longtime frontrunner who fatally damaged his cause by agitating to remove the incumbent, in Sunak’s case by resigning as Johnson’s chancellor.

He appeared finished and effectively vanished from view, last speaking in the Commons the day after Truss became PM. Unnamed allies predicted he could tire of Westminster life and move with his family to their home in California, resuming a finance career.

So what changed? In the simplest terms, as Sunak mulled over his options the political environment around him changed dramatically, and to his great advantage.

Rishi Sunak follows Liz Truss into the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London for the announcement of the Tory leadership result on 5 September
Rishi Sunak follows Liz Truss into the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London for the announcement of the Tory leadership result on 5 September. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Just as Sunak had predicted in a series of hustings events over the summer, Truss’s programme of largely unfunded tax cuts did frighten investors. Similarly, the day after she entered Downing Street, Truss agreed to the sort of energy bailout Sunak had spent weeks urging her to adopt.

Most crucially of all, as the Truss programme for government collapsed around her and Tory poll numbers dropped below 20%, for perhaps the first time since the Brexit referendum in 2016 Conservative MPs appeared to lose their appetite for chaos.

And Sunak was ready. He gathered most of the same team around him who had fought the summer campaign, led by the former Tory party chair Oliver Dowden. They had easily won the battle for MP nominations against Truss and got to work ruthlessly on doing the same thing again.

The tactic throughout was to present him as such a clear frontrunner in the parliamentary party that a members’ vote was superfluous. Within 24 hours of the campaign beginning, Team Sunak could confidently announce 90 backers. Such was his momentum that the entire process took just four days, with not a single public word spoken by the candidate until after he had triumphed.

Spurning Johnson and then Penny Mordaunt, Tory MPs instead put their faith in a politician whose timely talent was to be an ideologue who can present himself as a technocrat, as someone who has only been an MP for seven years and in the cabinet for two, but presents as an experienced and safe pair of hands.

“It’s less that Rishi has run a better campaign this time around, it’s more that the last few months have proved him right about a lot of things, including the economy and Boris,” one Sunak-supporting MP said.

“In particular, the way Johnson dropped out and left all his supporters looking stupid just showed what he’s like. MPs and members were starting to realise that.”

Such has been the trajectory of Sunak’s comeback that it arguably overshadows other notable elements of his arrival in No 10, not least that he does so as the first UK prime minister of colour, and the first, as a Hindu, to practise a religion other than Christianity.

Other elements of his background are notably more traditional, not least his education at Winchester college, followed by Oxford and then a career in finance, initially at Goldman Sachs.

But even here Sunak remains something of an outsider. His business background is more California tech bro than City pinstripe, formed by the decision to leave Goldman Sachs and take an MBA at Stanford.

Maybe the most significant thing to mark out Sunak as different is his status as not being merely wealthy, but very, very rich – worth an estimated £730m – thanks to his marriage to Akshata Murty, the daughter of the billionaire founder of the Indian IT giant Infosys.

As a prime minister, Sunak will almost certainly have to impose public spending cuts, tax rises, or both. Opponents will relentlessly highlight that he does this as a man whose wife minimised her UK tax payments via non-domiciled status, and who himself had a US green card for six years when he was an MP, including 19 months as chancellor.

Sunak is undoubtedly more pragmatic than Truss, and very obviously less chaotic and dishonest than Johnson. But he is still on the right of the party, especially on economic matters, which could come as a surprise to voters who know him only as the chancellor who sprayed around public money during Covid.

He will also be slightly boxed in by statements he made during the summer leadership contest, including ideas such as an effective ban on new onshore wind schemes.

Sunak has similarly committed to Tory MPs from the ultra-Brexit European Research Group that he will take a tough line on the Northern Ireland protocol.

His stated intention to unify the party is likely to require not just fiscal discipline but other policies that will appeal to the party’s populist right, such as culture wars, an area Sunak sought to embrace when battling Truss with a slightly half-hearted speech condemning “woke nonsense”.

This is perhaps the paradox that Tory MPs have inadvertently embraced with Sunak: such turbulent political times require someone who can be a manager and a pragmatist, but also a battler.

Sunak can do a reasonable impression of the first but no one really believes he has the aptitude for a real political scrap. Some Conservative MPs openly speculated last week that Sunak may not even try for No 10 again. “I’m not sure he has it in him,” one said at the time. “He wants a coronation.”

He has that coronation. And now the difficult task really begins.


Peter Walker and Pippa Crerar

The GuardianTramp

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