Conservatives want to consolidate around Sunak, their political future depends on it.
A leadership race prompted Boris Johnson’s snap to return to Westminster. There were three in the race and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak immediately took the lead. With Britain’s financial and political credibility at stake, MPs flocked behind Sunak; unexpectedly Johnson’s list did not immediately accumulate the magic threshold of 100 MPs. Penny Mordaunt’s list remained stagnant at around 30. Some of Johnson’s most reliable allies, Charles Moore (former Telegraph and Spectator Editor and biographer of Margaret Thatcher), Lord Jonathan Marland (former four times Minister) and Lord David Frost (former Brexit Negotiator and Minister of State), advised the former PM that now was not the auspicious time for his return. Johnson spent some time reaching out to Sunak and Mordaunt for some sort of unity deal, but neither were interested in partnering with their former boss. Apparently, Mordaunt asked him to step aside for her. Johnson’s failure to muster unity was just a repeat of his last weeks as Prime Minister, during which 60 MPs resigned.
Sunak’s numbers accelerated to exceed half the Conservative MPs (179), while Johnson supporters were increasing only in second gear. Suddenly and not for the first time Johnson chickened out (in 2016 after the Vote Leave Campaign, Johnson never explained why he ruled himself out as a leadership candidate). This time Johnson released a snap statement that effectively said he could have won but now was not the right time to put forward his nomination. His statement was a surprise to all but his nearest and dearest, many supporters felt disillusioned; the statement characterises his sense of exceptionalism, in that he believes he can still deliver a Conservative victory in 2024. But a general election is a long way off, there is a lot of water to flow under the bridge before 2024.
Johnson is extremely popular with the Conservative members, there is still not much factual demography about members as associations guard their memberships like the crown jewels. Members are thought to be less urban, older and not representative of the electorate. Sunak is extremely popular with the City and MPs, and is thought to be pragmatic about low-tax and stable growth, which is after all the philosophy of the Conservatives.
WhatsApp gossip went mad about who had demanded ministries in exchange for support, and what ministries had been promised to who.
Meantime Sunak and Mordaunt were left as contestants; in the two-horse race most of Johnson’s supporters and cabinet switched to Sunak, making it appear that MPs would not have to perform an indicative vote to inform the members. In fact it looked like a vote was going to be avoided altogether. But Mordaunt refused to be cowed by the media and Sunak’s numbers, she pushed on claiming she had 90 backers. The prevailing narrative was that the members would prefer Mordaunt and members should be allowed to vote.
During the run up to 2pm Monday when nominations closed, smear campaigns against Sunak and Johnson were rife. All of Johnson’s misdemeanours, both personal and political, were on display, and fictional nonsense related to Sunak’s Indian origins surfaced.
Sunak is only 42, he was part of the 2015 intake as MP for Richmond-Yorkshire, in 2019 he became Johnson’s protégé in the Treasury and Chancellor in 2020, in 2022 he could no longer tolerate the post-Covid discord and resigned. This year he became the self-confessed “underdog” in Liz Truss’ leadership campaign, and after last week’s snap leadership contest, from Tuesday he is the new UK PM.
The problems of the cost of living, the NHS, immigration, Brexit and societal fairness remain the same for Sunak as for those before him. The Tory tribes are disunited, the Labour Party has an advantage in the polls and Conservatives want to avoid a repeat of their 1997 defeat. It is now up to Sunak to unite the Conservative Party and the country, as he said he would in his first speech as Leader of the Conservative Party on Monday afternoon. This will require skill, bravery and a disregard for those who resent his wealth and claim he has no connect with ordinary people, and for those who harp on about party-gate fines, and for the others who cannot get over the fraud associated with the furlough scheme, finally for those who insist he has no mandate on the pretext that neither the members nor the public had a vote. Sunak is under no illusions, these are the opposition factions he faces in the Commons who resist coherent government.
Conservatives want to consolidate around Sunak, their political future depends on it. The 31 October “Budget” is redefined as the Autumn Statement to be delivered on 17 November accompanied by the OBR forecast, this will present Sunak-Jeremy Hunt’s medium term fiscal plan to put public spending on a sustainable footing and get debt falling and restore stability in the UK.