After securing the support of 38% of his Conservative colleagues (the lowest share for a frontrunner on a final ballot amongst MPs since 2001), Rishi Sunak is battling foreign secretary Liz Truss for the ultimate prize in British politics. But does Rishi Sunak have what it takes to win?
The polls certainly paint a disastrous picture with Sunak languishing behind his opponent amongst Conservative members by 24%. However, as we have seen in other leadership elections, including the Conservative’s in 2005, what the parliamentary party wants can be very different to what the membership may want, and what the membership may want may not be what the general public want. It seems like a triple filtration system that still produces an imperfect result – but that is a separate issue.
Sunak has progressed from being the golden boy of his party to one many despise. He has been slammed in the media for ‘backstabbing’ Boris Johnson, and his economic policy has come under heavy criticism from his colleagues. Some on the right of the party have decried his generous spending, tax rises, and increase in national insurance, with some referring to him as ‘socialist’.
However, when the former chancellor is showcased to Conservative voters he is more favourably received. A focus group in Newcastle-under-Lyme, a Conservative-Labour marginal held by Aaron Bell MP, had promising news for Sunak. Not only did all but one participant know who he was (which can be a drag, as well as a boost), but he was described as ‘bold’, ‘the country’s saviour’ during the pandemic, a ‘safe pair of hands’, and as a ‘statesman’. These are encouraging words from red wall voters about a candidate who many Truss supporters believe cannot win votes in the area.
A similar reaction has been found amongst the general population – 51% believe Sunak would make a good prime minister as opposed to 45% who disagree. Just 29% think Truss would make a good prime minister, while 65% do not. In the same poll, 30% of voters said they thought Sunak looked the strongest leader, compared to 9% for Truss – the figure is similar when the question of who seems ‘most competent’ is asked too.
One figure that 137 of Sunak’s parliamentary supporters may have noted was that, in this Opinium poll, 32% of British voters said he is most likely to win a general election – this includes nearly a third of Labour voters. Conversely, just 3% of Labour voters think Truss could – she is Sir Keir Starmer’s preferred candidate. Does Rishi Sunak have what it takes? Probably, when it comes to a general election.
The personal is political
Of course, being a well known candidate comes at a cost – Sunak was revered for his coronavirus response, including the roll-out of the furlough scheme and ‘Eat Out to Help Out’. But, his notoriety has also been built on the controversy surrounding his wife’s legal avoidance of tax through her non-domiciled status, and his admission to holding a US ‘Green Card’ residency permit until October last year. Furthermore, his receipt of a £50 fine after ‘passing through’ a party held in Downing Street in June 2020 also saw Sunak plunge in popularity.
However, the Newcastle-under-Lyme focus group did not see these issues as too consequential in their view of the ex-chancellor. Largely, Sunak’s performance during the pandemic excused him of his subsequent shortcomings. If he can focus on this during the campaign against Truss, he may be able to reduce his deficit in the polls.
Participants of a focus group in Oldham expressed concern that Rishi Sunak has what it takes, and that his incredible wealth made him ‘out of touch’ with voters. One woman stated that “he is not in touch with the North, he is not in touch with working class people. He is not in touch with what is going on in the world.”
The session, conducted by research group More in Common, concluded that these voters wanted two things: someone who understands them, and someone with a concrete plan to solve the UK’s economic problems. Sunak seems to be more fiscally cautious and prudent than Truss, and he has a record to match. But overcoming doubts stemming from his wealth and personal life could be a hindrance.
It seems that Sunak’s personal record may stymie him with the general population, whilst his political record may do so with party members.
Can Sunak climb this mountain?
Yes, Rishi Sunak does have what it takes – but he will need to focus on what the party deems to be important. He is already adopting more stances that would colour him in a more favourable light, such as claiming he flew back in December 2021 to avoid a Covid-19 lockdown. His campaign is even leaning on Thatcherite messages, harking back to her 1981 budget that put up taxes, and imposed a windfall tax on banks before attempting to manage inflation. If he can also lean on his pro-Brexit credentials and, crucially, show how he will embed it so it becomes irreversible (he is amping up his support for free ports), then he can make up ground with party members.
For example, he has already committed to creating a Brexit minister, and a new Brexit Delivery Department with a task of reviewing all 2,400 EU laws transferred over to the UK statute book after the UK’s exit from the bloc, alongside prioritising business tax cuts.
If Sunak does win the leadership election, prepare for an onslaught of attacks from the right of the party. He has committed to net zero, and to tackling inflation before cutting taxes, placing him firmly at odds against the tax-cutting, regulation-busting policy agenda of Truss.
This campaign is essentially between messages the membership want to hear, vs hard truths. One good thing that arisen from this is that the candidates are noticeably different – yet they seem to have in common a desperate desire to politically, economically, and even sartorially imitate Margaret Thatcher. They will struggle, and within months I predict the calls to ‘bring back Boris’ will ring loud and clear.