Rishi Sunak is not used to being the underdog. But his assertive, at times aggressive, tone in Monday evening’s first televised debate in the contest that will decide Britain’s next Prime Minister shows that he knows he has a fight on his hands.
Sunak came out on top – though not decisively so – in the first rounds of the selection process when the electorate was Conservative Party MPs. That narrowed the field for Conservative Party leaders to two candidates. But Sunak’s challenger, Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, is comfortably ahead among those who make the final decision, the 1,60,000 or so individual members of the Conservative Party.
Rishi Sunak’s problem is that he’s seen as a cautious centrist by a party membership that leans to the right; it sees Liz Truss as a more convincing champion of low taxes and minimal state regulation.
Liz Truss holds Sunak to blame for raising taxes to their highest level in 70 years. She argues that only immediate tax cuts can save the economy.
Few things excite Conservative activists more than the prospect of lower personal and corporate tax rates.
Though opinion polls suggest that he’s a lot more popular than his rival, under Conservative Party rules, it’s the members that make the choice between the two final candidates.
Rishi Sunak still has a little time to win over his party rank-and-file – but not all that long.
Tax Cuts Is the 'Magic Word' for Conservatives
It’s not about race or ethnic identity. That simply isn’t an issue. Rishi Sunak’s problem is that he’s seen as a cautious centrist by a party membership that leans to the right; it sees Liz Truss as a more convincing champion of low taxes and minimal state regulation.
The discussion between the two candidates – particularly on the crucial issues of taxes and the cost of living crisis – was abrasive. While both said how much they respected the other, the tone and body language at times suggested not simply rivalry but animosity.
Rishi Sunak, whose resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer (basically Britain’s finance minister) earlier this month delivered a fatal blow to Boris Johnson’s premiership, is presenting himself as a wise and experienced manager of the economy. He insists that taxes cannot be cut until inflation – now above 9% a year and rising, the highest level for more than forty years – has been brought under control.
Liz Truss holds Sunak to blame for raising taxes to their highest level in 70 years. She argues that only immediate tax cuts can save the economy from contracting and ease the burden on households of soaring energy bills and food prices. And there are few things that excite Conservative activists more than the prospect of lower personal and corporate tax rates.
Sunak's 'Wealthy' Background Doesn't Help
On several occasions, Sunak, who is enormously wealthy, sought to convince the audience that he understood the problems of those who are hardworking and hard up. He talked about how as a schoolboy he spent his evenings helping keep the books of his mother’s pharmacy and then would get on his bike to deliver medicines to the pharmacy’s customers. He mentioned how he had worked part-time as a waiter in an Indian restaurant to earn a bit of spending money.
But some of Truss’s supporters have made an issue of Sunak’s taste for hugely expensive tailor-made suits and upmarket shoes.
Sunak went to Winchester, one of the country’s most renowned and expensive fee-paying schools; Truss attended a state-run comprehensive school in Leeds in the north of England.
Last weekend, Rishi Sunak was accompanied at a campaign speech by his wife, Akshata Murthy, the daughter of the Infosys founder, Narayana Murthy, and their two young daughters. That was widely noticed by political observers. The revelation earlier this year that Akshata Murthy claimed a tax status that shielded some of her income from UK taxation tarnished Sunak’s political standing. There was nothing improper or illegal in what she was doing, but the perception that the wife of the Chancellor was finding ways of sidestepping the tax burden her husband was imposing on British households was damaging.
Sunak at first insisted that his wife made her own financial decisions and had done nothing wrong. But Murthy quickly made clear that she wouldn’t continue to claim tax privileges, even if she was entitled to them.
Sunak Remains Popular, But Who Holds the Reins?
On balance, the immediate verdict after Monday’s debate was that Rishi Sunak had come out on top. Opinion polls suggest that he’s a lot more popular than his rival.
But that probably won’t be enough to see Sunak to victory. Britain’s fustily old-fashioned political system requires simply that when a Prime Minister stands down between general elections, the governing party select a new leader who then automatically becomes Prime Minister. Under Conservative Party rules, it’s their membership that makes the choice between the two final candidates. That membership constitutes just 0.3% of the total adult population.
More people attend the Glastonbury music festival each year than those who have a voice in deciding the country’s next leader.
Rishi Sunak still has a little time to win over his party rank-and-file – but not all that long. While the result won’t be known until early September, postal ballots will start being issued in a week or two, and many members may well return their vote straight away.
Labour Party May Benefit
The sight of the two contenders for the Conservative Party leadership tearing each other apart at the hustings, and the prospect of the more populist and right-wing candidate winning, may have an unintended consequence. It could help the opposition Labour Party bounce back to power in 2024. Labour is ahead in the polls and has in Keir Starmer a leader who is transparently honest and competent, if unexciting.
That offers Rishi Sunak his only real chance of winning – by convincing his party to select not the leader they most like but the leader who has the best chance of securing an unprecedented fifth general election victory for the Conservatives.
(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent and also reported on British politics for the BBC. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)