UK Politics: Is a 'Scorch Sunak' Campaign Being Run by Team Boris?

This is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse bids in British politics to become the PM.

8 min read
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Temperatures have been soaring in the UK, with warnings for the first-ever heat emergency likely to be declared soon. But political temperatures are rising faster as the race to replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister intensifies. After the first round of hustings, wherein each candidate requires 20 supporters, the list has come down to eight candidates.

Home Secretary Priti Patel withdrew from the contest after discussions with right-wing members of the Conservative, namely Jacob Rees Mogg and Nadine Dorris, both Johnson acolytes who are supporting Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Sajid Javid, former Health Secretary and the first Cabinet minister to resign, has also withdrawn from the contest. As they say, "He who wields the sword doesn’t wear the crown." Will he now support the front-runner and former Chancellor, Rishi Sunak?

The eight who are in the race until Thursday, when contestants will need 30 supporters each, are Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Penny Mordaunt, Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugenhadt, Suella Braverman, Nadhim Zahawi and Kemi Badenoch.


Can Sunak Withstand the Storm?

The way and the speed with which things are moving, daggers have been clearly drawn. It seems there is a ‘scorch Sunak’ campaign being run by supporters of Liz Truss. Jacob Rees Mogg, minister of Brexit Opportunities and who called Sunak a 'socialist' chancellor, and Nadine Dorris, Culture Secretary, are both known to be Johnson acolytes. That they are now supporting Truss shows that the Johnson gang is out to slaughter Sunak’s chances. Also, for them, Truss looks better to get into the final two than Penny Mordaunt, minister of state for Trade, who is also a Brexiteer but more a social liberal.

But Sunak is no naïve player. He has the maximum support at 55, and, interestingly, has Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab and Grant Shapps (former Transport Secretary who withdrew his candidature) backing him. In fact, he also has the SWAT team of several past Tory chief whips. Sunak team hopes that he would gather such strong backing that it would finally lead to him being anointed.

The battle toughens from here on. Back-stabbing, blue blood-letting and horse-trading (not the kind Indians believe it to be) will be in full swing until Thursday, when the next hustings take place.

The top four contenders are clear: Sunak, Truss, Mordaunt, and Tugendhat. The bitter fight has begun.

Dorris, of the Johnson camp, claimed ‘dirty tricks’, saying Sunak’ s team lent votes to Jeremy Hunt to get him across the line on Tuesday, an allegation scoffed at by Hunt. Interestingly, both Tugendhat and Hunt are in the One Nation camp.

This list will be whittled down by Thursday evening. The most racially and ethnically diverse contest in British politics is getting intense and dirty.


Why Indian Media Shouldn't Celebrate Too Soon

To begin with, the most favourable leader was Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, until he announced that he was not running for the post. It will be interesting to see which candidate he supports. Following him, the most favoured candidate is former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Indian-origin Rishi Sunak, who recently was the second person to resign from Boris Johnson’s Cabinet.

While the Indian media is going gaga over his chances of winning the race, here is the caution, there are many a slip between the cup and the lip. The Conservative Party leadership contest is a long and complicated process, in which only party members vote. Also, it is important to remember that the favourites historically have not won the leadership bid. Former Prime Ministers John Major, David Cameron, and even Prime Minister Johnson, all came from behind to go on to lead the Tories.

A Host of Asian Candidates

But looking at the current mainstream trends of the initial phase, I will try to analyse what the chances are for the Asian candidates now left in the fray. This is definitely the first realistic chance at having an Indian-origin Prime Minister in the UK. In fact, the Conservative Party has moved ahead of the Labour Party in throwing up so many Asian candidates, despite the fact that Labour was the party that immigrants were drawn to historically. Over recent years, there has been a shift of the British Indian votes to Conservatives. The older, less qualified, less affluent migrants were Labour voters for its pro-poor policies. But the younger generation, which is relatively fast-growing, highly educated with a high-net worth, has moved to Conservatives.

Most importantly, Brexit, too, has had a role to play in this shift. Surprisingly, despite being an immigrant community, British Indians voted for Brexit in large numbers.

We need to also remember that Conservative party members in the government are seen as right-wing, pro-Brexit, and as supporting austerity and tax cuts favouring the rich.


Rishi Sunak's Tainted Appeal

So, let's discuss Sunak, the son of GP and pharmacist parents, who was, until the past few months, seen as the obvious successor to Johnson by many Tory MPs. Backbenchers found him calm and unflappable. His popularity surged when he assumed a prominent role amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, announcing a raft of measures to support workers and businesses. But his appeal took a beating following several events, including a number of policies such as the national insurance rise; he was soon seen as being out of touch.

In addition, there were two other hiccups: he was fined a fixed penalty in the Partygate scandal, and it was revealed that his wife, the multimillionaire Akshata Murthy, daughter of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy, held non-dom status and thus did not have to pay UK tax on her sizeable international income. Both these events damaged Sunak’s standing.

A Brexiteer, Sunak, in sharp contrast to other candidates, is sticking to his guns in resisting tax cuts, arguing that it would fuel rising prices and warning against telling voters "comforting fairy tales". He is the torch-bearer of fiscal conservatism, while some of his challengers see him as the scrooge of British politics. However, going by the current trends, he will surely be one of the final two candidates.


Other Contenders to Look out for

Then is Attorney-General Suella Braverman, of Goan origin. Herself a Brexiteer, she has the backing of die-hard Brexit supporter and former minister Steve Baker, who was earlier said to be considering his own bid. A controversial person, with allegations of her being a member of a Buddhist Triratna order whose founder was accused of sexual abuse, she remains a ‘mitra’ within the order. Braverman also argues that the energy crisis means that the target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 should be shelved. In a post on Twitter, Braverman said that the UK "must leave" the jurisdiction of the European Convention on Human Rights. I would be surprised and concerned about the state of the Tory party if she progressed much further. She may not last after Thursday.

Nadhim Zahawi, who replaced Sunak as Chancellor, is of Kurdish origin and came to the UK as a nine-year-old when his parents fled the Saddam Hussein regime. Like Sunak, he is believed to be one of the richest politicians in the House of Commons. But his recent action of accepting the position of Chancellor and then writing an open letter to Johnson to leave within 24-hours of the appointment is being seen as “opportunism”. There have also been reports that his taxes are being investigated.

Other candidates include British Nigerian Kemi Badenoch, and Conservative bigwigs like Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Jeremy Hunt, who had lost to Johnson in the last leadership contest.

There is also Penny Mordaunt, now with 23 supporters and second to Sunak, who was sacked as Defence Secretary when Johnson came to power and has kept a relatively low profile since returning to government as an international trade minister. She is, nonetheless, seen as ambitious and is popular with Tory MPs. She played a prominent role in the Leave campaign in 2016.

Among other contenders is Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, who was the first to enter the fray after Johnson left office. He has held no previous ministerial position but is worth looking out for as a surprise choice.


A Long and Complicated Process

But this is just the start. After the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee met on Monday, some contenders could withdraw. On 22 July, the list will be whittled down to two final candidates for a face-off for 10, Downing Street. The two finalists will be forced to agree in writing that they will not withdraw from the contest, under new plans to stop MPs stitching up who the next Prime Minister is. It will be the ‘Leadsom clause’ because Dame Andrea Leadsom, in 2016, handed the leadership unchallenged to the then-favourite Theresa May before members were given a chance to vote.

Hence, it is important to understand how this entire thing will play out.

The next Conservative leader is being selected by a process initially run by the MPs, before the final two are put in front of the party's 200,000 members to select a winner.

The hope is that the rules agreed upon on Monday by both the 1922 Committee of the party and the Board will allow the leadership field to be narrowed down quickly to a handful of Conservative candidates by the weekend.

Nominations have to be submitted to Sir Graham Brady, the 1922 chairman, by 12 July. The first hurdle is the smallest: a candidate must receive the backing of 20 MPs – that is 18 MPs, a proposer and a seconder – to enter the race. The initial list now stands at eight candidates. Voting will then start on 13 July. This is when the contest intensifies. Leaders who have support of fewer than 10 per cent of the parliamentary party, ie, 30 MPs, will have to drop out.

The remaining candidates in the contest will then be courting rivals who have been forced to withdraw and are trying to get their endorsements and, hopefully, the support of MPs who had backed them. The second round of voting takes place on 14 July, when the last-placed leadership contender will automatically drop out.


A 'Super Monday' of Hustings

The Committee has increased the threshold at which a candidate has to withdraw, from 10% to 15%, in order to whittle down the list of candidates more quickly. After Thursday's second ballot, there will be a pause of three days before MPs get a chance to grill candidates about their policies on a "super Monday" of hustings.

Three sets of hustings are planned for 18 July – one by the 1922 Committee, which is open to all Tory MPs, another by the 92-group of senior Tory MPs, and a third by the ‘anti-woke’ Common Sense group.

The next round of voting is planned for 19 July, when one or two ballots might be held, depending on the number of candidates remaining. A final day of voting is scheduled for Wednesday, 20 July.

It is hoped that by 21 July, two candidates will remain in the process, after which officials at the Conservative Central Office will take over and organise a series of hustings in the party's regional bases around the country for members to grill the two remaining contenders.

Tory members will be encouraged to vote for their choice by post by late August. The winner will be announced on 5 September.

The new Conservative leader and Prime Minister will have two days to prepare for their first meeting with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on 7 September.


Are Conservatives Seeing an Erosion?

The contest is far from decided. As of now, it appears that Sunak had been preparing for this bid for several months before Johnson’s resignation. This raises the criticism that the likes of Sunak and Javid sat in the Cabinet and remained mute spectators when the government was getting riddled with scandals but chose to resign at a time convenient for them.

It is also highly unlikely that a more centrist Conservative party will be in power. As political economist Richard Murphy said on Twitter:

“The reality of the modern Tory party is that all the candidates for leader seem to endorse the racist Rwanda policy, austerity, tax cuts favouring the rich, the removal of our human rights, breaching the Northern Ireland protocol and breaking international law. Heaven, help us.”

Some senior Tory members confided in me that they fear that an erosion of the Conservatives has begun, which could lead to a rout for many years to come. Their concern is understandable given the electoral losses the party has been facing over recent byelections at the hands of Labour and Liberal Democrats. Will Brexit and right-wing Conservatism, which gave the party record margins of victory and years in power, also be the undoing of it?

(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.)

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Topics:  UK   Boris Johnson   Rishi Sunak 

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