A year ago life was different. We had learnt to fight the pandemic and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak was still riding high as the most popular politician in the country. Europe was not engulfed in a war, we could pay our energy bills, and were not facing down a glaring recession. In fact, Prime Minister Boris Johnson believed he would remain in power for a decade.
All that is now history. Johnson is about to leave office. We are faced with unimaginable energy bills, driving families to utter poverty. And we will have a new Conservative Party leader and prime minister in a week’s time, with the two final candidates Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Sunak entwined in a no-holds barred dogfight for the top job. Sunak’s popularity has now vanished into thin air. And it is the less popular, often criticised as inefficient, Truss who appears to be marching towards 10 Downing Street.
Sunak and the Many Ironies of Tory Politics
Ironically, Sunak who voted for Brexit is popular among Tory Remainers, while Truss who was a Remainer—until she entered government—is rated highly among the Brexiteers in the party membership and is considered the true believer of the cause. Unfortunately, despite the mess Brexit has created, the party membership is still defined and dominated by Tory Leavers. And Truss has been leading way ahead of Sunak in polls. Sunak has been unable to turn around the opinion about himself.
None of the two candidates are ideal, competent or popular enough to win a general election. But this is a Tory party election where we the people may find ourselves heavily burdened with a leader not elected by the public at a time of immense livelihood crisis facing the country.
Johnson, who still remains very popular among Tory membership has also had his influence on this race. His supporters are happy to give Truss a victory. A large section of Tory members see Sunak as a renegade who betrayed Johnson by being one of the first to resign from government while Truss still continues as foreign secretary. The distance between Johnson and Sunak has been brewing for a while and Sunak’s ambivalence on certain issues has not helped him either.
While Sunak failed to resign over Sue Gray’s preliminary partygate report, he did not back Johnson over the Jimmy Savile scandal and in fact criticised the Prime Minister’s attack on Labour leader Keir Starmer. Soon after, stories revealing Sunak’s wife’s non-dom status and him holding a US green card, were in the media headlines. Many believe they were concerted leaks. But theses revelations led to him being seen as a multimillionaire, part of an international elite, not truly committed to Britain alone.
Sunak's Dipping Popularity
Finally, Sunak’s orthodox Spring Statement to the House of Commons in March made for bad politics for him. Truss, on the other hand, as the then Trade Secretary signed some insignificant trade deals but managed to show herself as making Brexit a success.
Many questions are being asked if Sunak should have resigned earlier, when his popularity was high, or should he not have resigned at all and carried on like Truss. Hindsight is always great. During this campaign his messaging has been inconsistent—with too many U-turns—which clearly shows a lack of mission.
His comments on scientists being given too much power during COVID has enraged the scientific community. Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor wrote, “Sunak is courting votes, twisting what actually happened to fit a narrative certain voters want to hear. Worse, the misinformation he’s spouting is dangerous. It encourages the public to think the worst of scientists, only exacerbating mistrust and division. The fact is, scientists weren’t empowered enough – and were used at times as human shields for political incompetence and procrastination. Shame on Sunak for debasing himself”.
Is Truss Better than Sunak for the Top Job?
Without going into too many details, Truss also appears all over the place. At a time when the UK is suffering the worst living standards crisis in more than a generation, Truss, surprisingly refuses to guarantee further state support if she leads the country. Instead, she promises to scrap Sunak’s planned corporation tax rise from 19% to 25%, and his recent National Insurance levy. Truss’ plans to slash VAT across the board has been rubbished by Sunak’s team, calling it “regressive and flawed”. While both are pitching their Thatcherite credentials, Sunak has been endorsed by Thatcher’s chancellor Nigel Lawson.
Truss is no favourite among the general public of UK. But then we are not the ones voting. Latest in her many ill-thought pronouncements came her comment on French President Emmanuel Macron, when she told the penultimate Conservative leadership hustings that “the jury is still out” on whether the French President was “friend or foe”. Macron’s response was that France and Britain would be facing “serious problems” if they could not say whether they were friends or enemies, while insisting that for Paris the UK would always be an ally no matter who was running it.
Can Truss be Trusted with Foreign Policy?
Former diplomats have reacted strongly to her comments calling it highly irresponsible, coming from someone who is likely to be the next prime minister. Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to Paris, has been quoted saying Truss’s comments were ill-judged. “We are at the stage of the Tory leadership contest where the contestants need to start seeing themselves, and behaving, as future leaders of the country,” he said. Clearly, she is yet to show any global leadership qualities.
Should she become prime minister she will come with some negative baggage on the international stage at a fraught time. She will be addressing the UN general assembly in November. This will all come in the backdrop of a war in Ukraine, global energy crisis and calls for more action on the climate crisis. An unnamed Truss ally told The Times, “It’s gone too far. The people who are backing Sunak will not lose easily. Their own personal careers are more important than uniting the country.
“For Liz just governing is going to be impossible, never mind uniting the party. They will move against her. The winter is going to be awful.” The party is now divided.
Baptism by Fire
As John Oxley succinctly writes, “Even in power it (Conservative Party) remains incapable of generating and delivering credible policies, incapable of using its resources to tackle the challenges ahead.” He further adds, “The party has become a machine for garnering headlines and votes but is now starting to stall. Insulated by a media which also focuses on the day-to-day rigmarole of politics as soap opera, our leaders are missing the signs of short and long-term crisis which will soon hit. They are failing to adapt, failing to plan. The sirens are ringing, the ground is coming”.
Whoever reaches 10 Downing Street on 5 September will have to tread a path of thorns. The newly elected prime minister and those who join the new cabinet will face a baptism by fire with looming recession, skyrocketing inflation, horrendous cost of living crisis and the continuing problems caused by Brexit.
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)