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London: On current trends, it looks as if Britain might get its next prime minister without even having a public debate about whether it wants someone of Asian origin in the post. Rishi Sunak, whose Indian parents moved to the UK via East Africa, was the front runner favoured by a majority of Conservative MPs when the contest for party leadership began. But that has changed.
All the opinion polls are now indicating that Sunak, till recently chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), will be beaten by Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, who looked a gauche and unprepared candidate at the start but has now emerged as the favourite, winning growing support from cabinet colleagues who want jobs in her administration.
The Times last night reported a YouGov opinion poll of party members that showed Truss leading with 60% to Sunak’s 26% and 14% undecided or not voting. Nine out of ten of those polled said they had already decided who to vote for.
There might still be time for the figures to change. Voting papers that were being sent out this week to some 160,000 party members are delayed for several days because of the risk of cyber attacks, it was announced last night. The deadline for voting is September 2, but many recipients are expected to fill in the forms and return them quickly by post or on-line, so Sunak may not have long to reverse the apparent Truss lead.
Television and other public debates will continue through August, unless one of the candidate withdraws. The result is scheduled to be announced on September 5 and the winner will immediately replace the disgraced but unrepentant Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and move into Downing Street.
Sunak is clearly the more competent of the two candidates. He argues his economic policies lucidly with confidence and a grasp of detail – even surviving with few bruises a half-hour interview with an aggressive television anchor, Andrew Neil, who frequently crushes his guests. Truss has declined an invitation from Neil, presumably fearing she would not do anywhere near so well.
Unlike Truss, Sunak lacks broad government experience, especially on foreign affairs, having only entered politics in 2015. He also lacks political judgement, which he showed when he allowed the tax affairs of his immensely wealthy wife, Akshata Murthy, to become a political issue earlier this year. The daughter of India’s leading IT tycoon, Infosys’s Narayana Murthy, Akshata had retained non-domicile status and used it to escape some £20 million UK tax.
That became a major media story and was a setback for Sunak. It has now been corrected, but should have been changed in 2015, as should Sunak’s US green card that he kept after working as a Goldman Sachs investment banker in America. He also seemed not to realise that their combined wealth, which the Sunday Times Rich List puts at £730m, would become a political hazard that needed managing, especially for a finance minister and an aspiring Prime Minister.
But despite those limitations, Sunak is the natural choice for party voters wanting a well-informed leader who would be clearly focussed on devising and executing sound policies – in sharp contrast to Johnson and also in contrast to Truss who has tended in her campaign to devise policy initiatives that grab instant headlines.
The main policy debate has been on the economy at a time when there is a cost-of-living crisis with inflation is running at over 9%, and there is virtually no economic growth. Truss is promising populist instant tax cuts funded by borrowing, which Sunak rejects because of rising national debt, though he has been forced to promise some tax cuts over seven years.
On Tuesday, Truss had to reverse a policy announced the night before that would have created regional public sector pay boards and caused pay cuts for government and other workers living outside London, including teachers and nurses. This idea had been thought about and abandoned for many years by successive governments, but Truss presumably latched on to it as a headline grabbing initiative that would, she said, ultimately save £9 billion and help fund her tax cuts.
She has also shown herself to be brash on international affairs, making unnecessary threats and demands to Vladimir Putin that prompted him to put Russia’s nuclear weapons on high alert at the end of February, and to Emmanuel Macron over recent travel delays across the English Channel. At home on August 1, she insulted Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s independence leader, saying she was an “attention seeker”. The best way to deal with her was “to ignore her”. The Sunak team more sensibly said Sturgeon should be tackled on her policies, not ignored.
Truss might of course moderate her style if she is elected, but these recent events could cause some of her potential supporters to have second thoughts while they wait for ballot papers. Her style is in line with her wish to be seen as tough and as effective as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who she emulates – even dressing in Thatcher style clothes on a visit to Russia.
Johnson’s supporters continually accuse Sunak of disloyalty, alleging he intentionally triggered the Prime Minister’s downfall with his resignation as chancellor on July 5. That was quickly followed by some 50 other ministerial resignations. Sajid Javed, the health minister, resigned just before Sunak, but arguably that alone would not have been enough to lead to what Johnson described as the “herd instinct” departures.
A veteran right-wing political commentator, Charles Moore, wrote after an interview with Sunak, “How nice it was to talk to a politician who never bluffs about details, expresses himself so intelligently and genuinely enjoys policy argument” with a “cool, clear mind”. Moore noted Sunak’s “charm, which combines modesty of demeanour with mastery of the subject, as if he were a sympathetic surgeon ready to operate most delicately upon the nation’s troubled brain.”
But Moore, who is close to Johnson, opted for Truss, partly because Sunak’s “subliminal message is: ‘I know better than you’.” That implied criticism stemmed from the way that Sunak repeatedly interrupted and talked over Truss during TV debates, sparking allegations from her supporters and others of “aggressive mansplaining” and “shouty private school behaviour”. (Sunak went to the elite Winchester school in fashionable Hampshire while Truss went to a more politically-acceptable comprehensive school in the north of England).
Moore also tackled the question of Sunak’s origins. “I must also admit to a racial preference: I would love the Conservative Party, which scooped the first Jew and the first woman, now to be led by its first British Indian. (He was referring to Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century Prime Minister whose father had Jewish origins but who was brought up a Christian, and to Thatcher).
Most commentators have steered clear of this, almost as if the subject was off limits because of sensitivities over race, ethnic origin and maybe even religion. Sunak is a practising Hindu and made his oath on the religion’s sacred Bhagavad Gita when he became an MP.
One notoriously controversial lawyer tweeted about whether the Conservatives would want a “brown man” as leader. That led to an uproar and the tweet was deleted, but it did lead to the thought that the traditionalist largely middle-class members of the Conservative Party might be less willing than the general electorate to see Sunak in Downing Street.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s supporters are campaigning (fruitlessly) for his name to be on the ballot paper. Whoever wins will have to cope with his continued presence, not only as an MP and as a prominent columnist in the Daily Telegraph, but also because he seems to believe he will be called on to return as Prime Minister – as happened to his idol Winston Churchill.
That will not help the new Prime Minister deal with a mass of crises including inflation and the escalating the cost of living, serious labour shortages, and a series of public sector and other strikes that have already started on the railways and in telecommunications and also threaten schools and ports. There is even a vague threat of a general strike if Truss goes ahead with ill thought-through plans to stop trade unions causing major disruption.
The choice the Conservative voters are making is between Sunak, who would surely cope with these issues calmly and effectively, and Truss who wants to be seen as a second Maggie Thatcher, known as the ‘Iron Lady’.
John Elliott is a journalist and author.