Tired of Johnson, Conservatives Want to Take a Gamble on Sunak
The Chancellor is winning over a party that has been exhausted by months of chaos in Downing Street, reports Adam Bienkov
Rishi Sunak is now the overwhelming favourite to succeed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
Bookies put the Chancellor well ahead of his nearest rival Liz Truss in any potential contest.
“Rishi has a huge advantage this time,” one former aide to Johnson told Byline Times.
“Tory members are very, very focused on winning and don’t put ideology first, and that is what has helped make the Conservative Party the electoral success that it is. They will choose Rishi because he has proved that he can connect with voters.”
Recent opinion polls appear to back this up. While Johnson’s personal ratings continue to sink to historic lows, Sunak remains relatively popular.
His attachment to the furlough scheme and his polished presentational skills have helped him avoid the same collapse in his ratings as his next-door neighbour.
These are skills that the Chancellor has also used to win over his parliamentary colleagues.
“Rishi has managed to create a hinterland of people who both like and support him and also a hinterland of people who think that he is both able economically, but also has political nouse,” one Conservative MP and former minister told Byline Times.
“So, both as a person and as a political operator, he’s got real skills.”
But while Sunak remains the strong favourite to replace Johnson, big threats remain to his candidacy.
Earlier this week, the Treasury Minister Lord Theodore Agnew quit over the Government’s decision to write-off billions of pounds of fraudulently claimed COVID-19 support funds.
As a result, Johnson was left red-faced after being asked at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday if he agreed with Sunak’s decision to hand “£154 for every household in the country… directly into the pockets of fraudsters”.
The news left Sunak scrambling to defend his record, insisting that he will “do everything we can”, to recover the funds.
Sunak was also forced this week to distance himself from the scandal of the Downing Street parties, after it was revealed that he had also attended Johnson’s birthday celebrations.
In a bizarre defence, Sunak’s allies told one news organisation that the Chancellor had only “accidentally” attended the event. Some of his colleagues believe that this may prove to be an untenable position for him.
“Someone is inevitably going to write the story saying: ‘here is this guy who lives next door but is saying he somehow didn’t know what his neighbour was getting up to’,” one Conservative MP told Byline Times. “I think he’s going to struggle to explain that one away.”
Sunak’s incredibly wealthy background could also be a problem for him. The Chancellor, who was educated at Winchester College and Oxford University, is a former hedge fund manager and is married to a billionaire, would make even his richest predecessors in the job look like paupers.
Could Conservative MPs ultimately decide that he is not the best candidate for the job amid a growing cost of living crisis?
“When we get to a contest, lots of people are going to be saying to him ‘look Rishi, you’re the richest member of the House of Commons’,” one Conservative MP told Byline Times. “And they’ll be asking ‘how is it going to look for us going from an Old Etonian as Prime Minister to someone who is essentially a billionaire? You’re not exactly a man of the people are you?’”
The current consensus among Conservative MPs is that none of these potential pitfalls are large enough to exclude him from the job. However, there is concern that Sunak – who was filmed abruptly exiting a recent interview when asked difficult questions about the Prime Minister – has not been properly battle-tested.
“None of these questions are insurmountable for him, but if I were in the centre of his team, I’d be making sure that I had a pretty good answer to all of them”, one former minister commented.
If a contest were held tomorrow, Sunak would likely win it. However, if Johnson clings on longer than previously expected, then events could still conspire to rob the Sunak of the leadership.
The scheduled National Insurance tax rise which is deeply unpopular with Conservative MPs could serve to damage his prospects and turn the public against him. Wary of this, the Chancellor has reportedly taken to referring to the planned rise as “the Prime Minister’s tax”.
Who Can Beat Sunak?
The favourites in Conservative leadership contests famously do not normally go on to win. However, Rishi Sunak would appear to have an easier run at the job than previous frontrunners.
His current nearest rival, on paper at least, is the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
Truss is very popular with party members but appears to be much less popular with the parliamentary party. As a result she would likely struggle to win over enough MPs to make it into the final round of a leadership contest.
“I just don’t buy the Liz Truss phenomenon,” one former aide to Johnson told Byline Times. “I just don’t believe that she will survive contact with voters.”
If there is a threat to Sunak it may therefore come from a lesser-known rival. One name that has kept on popping up is the Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt.
A formidable operator and a rising star in the party, Mordaunt would likely gather support from across the party.
“I don’t think you should underestimate Penny,” one MP told Byline Times. “She has the ability to take what I would call the sane Brexit wing of the party with her as well as the centre. So she and Rishi will be fishing in very similar pools.”
A Harder Opponent for Labour?
What is less clear is what a Rishi Sunak premiership would actually look like.
While he has portrayed himself as a fiscal Conservative, he recently raised taxes in the UK by the highest amount of any Chancellor for almost three decades.
Sunak’s supporters explain that away by pointing to the necessity of dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic. However, his incredibly rapid rise to power means that there is little on which to make an objective judgement about him.
This concerns some in the party.
“My worry is not so much that as Chancellor he has spent lots of money, because he’s had to do that, but just that he hasn’t really done anything else,” one Conservative supporter of Sunak told Byline Times last week. “My fundamental worry with him is that he is just a little bit too much like Boris. He is too much of a crowd-pleaser, with too much of an eye on the opinion polls.”
However, most Conservative MPs, who are exhausted by months of chaos in Downing Street, appear willing to take him at his word.
“I think he really is what Johnson used to portray himself as,” a Conservative MP, who is considering backing the Chancellor, told this newspaper. “He’s much more socially liberal than Johnson and much more fiscally Conservative. And, if he was in charge, I’m pretty sure he would get debt back under control and rebuild the Government’s reputation with business.”
This view, that Sunak is a more traditional Conservative leader than Johnson, is one that is shared by both the party’s MPs and the opposition.
In some respects, Sunak, who is significantly more popular with the public than Johnson, would pose a more difficult challenge for Keir Starmer. Labour’s entire political message in recent months has been to portray recent Government chaos and incompetence as the polar opposite of Starmer’s stable and lawyerly opposition. Having Sunak in Number 10 would therefore appear to make life much more difficult for the Leader of the Opposition.
However, if Johnson is ousted soon, the Chancellor would inherit a huge backlog of problems – from Brexit, to the cost of living crisis, to the immense costs of implementing the Government’s climate change agenda.
Any of these in isolation would test even the most experienced of politicians. Putting a politician as untested as Sunak in charge of all of them would appear to be a massive gamble.
However, with Johnson’s Government lurching from one crisis to another, it is a gamble that many Conservative MPs now say that they are willing to take.