If everything now runs to form, Rishi Sunak will be confirmed as the next Conservative leader on Monday October 24 and sworn in as the UK’s third prime minister this year. After a miserable defeat in the summer leadership contest, the former chancellor’s ascension looks all but assured after Boris Johnson declared he would not be standing in the contest.
His win was looking more likely as the weekend wore on and Johnson appeared to be losing momentum. Though Johnson maintained he did have the 100 nominations necessary to enter the ballot, this was never verified with public declarations of support and it was clear the tide was running against him. While many believed Johnson could still win a ballot of members, he may have decided that this might not have been true were he too heavily beaten by Sunak in the MPs’ vote.
Johnson’s decision is a relief. The UK has enough entertainment for a generation and now desperately needs a period of undramatic stable government. Johnson remained subject to a House of Commons inquiry over “partygate”, had shown himself incapable of establishing a credible Downing Street operation and tellingly had backed Liz Truss for the leadership. Opponents will call for a general election but, realistically, we are two years from such a poll. The priority now is a serious, well-managed government. There was never a reason to think a return of Johnson offered it.
Sunak’s victory is not yet guaranteed. Penny Mordaunt, the Leader of the Commons and his only remaining rival, has yet to pull out though many expect it before nominations close at 2pm. Nevertheless, Sunak now looks unstoppable even if that ballot were to occur.
It is striking to think that Sunak could become prime minister after a contest that was characterised by the fact that none of the candidates attempted to speak to the voters or set out an agenda, but focused solely on the parliamentary selectorate. Mordaunt did offer herself for one interview but refused to go into any details of her policy plans. This is not merely a constitutional gripe. Sunak faces huge issues and has offered no public indication of how he will face them beyond what he said in the different circumstances of the last leadership contest.
There are two major challenges to tackle: one economic, one political, and the two are directly related. Without restoring good political order he cannot tackle the economic issues. The next prime minister is going to have to preside over a painful period of retrenchment. A key issue will be setting the balance between tax rises and spending cuts. Yet without political stability, he will struggle to drive through the necessary measures.
Sunak may hope that his arrival reassures global investors that the UK has reverted to sensible, fiscally continent leadership. Yet the economic situation is dire and whatever he does is likely to be unpopular. He has not yet squared his MPs or the country to such policies. We do not know what he will do on the energy rescue package though he is likely to agree with Jeremy Hunt that it should be reviewed and scaled back in the spring. Sunak has not publicly committed to keeping the chancellor in place but it looks likely. The one advantage of his silence is that he has not closed off any avenues.
He also faces the problem of public services under immense strain and a wave of strikes over pay. Which way will he lean in the battle on whether to liberalise immigration? His economic instincts may be in favour, but Tory voters veer the other way and he has a complex electoral coalition to rebuild.
Yet the first battle will be re-establishing political stability. Holding together the Tories’ electoral coalition in a period of retrenchment, inflation and possibly recession will be extremely difficult. In recent months, the Conservative party has looked undisciplined and ungovernable and he has many colleagues who openly loathe him, wrongly blaming him for Johnson’s downfall. The party struggled to find a unity candidate because there was very little unity. An early test of his approach will be how much he shuffles his cabinet. There is a stability argument for limited tinkering but he will want the best team he can assemble while avoiding Truss’s mistake of shutting out those who were not supporters.
Sunak, like his predecessor, finds himself with no money and no reliable majority. Johnson’s allies depict him as a member of the “globalist” elite they now despise. His personal wealth opens him to accusations of being detached from ordinary voters though many of them remember the furlough scheme with gratitude.
A clear win will bolster his authority but he has limited room for manoeuvre even if his MPs show hitherto unseen self-discipline. Even some of his supporters have warned they could sink his government if they think he is selling them out over Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol. This mistrust comes despite the fact that he was an original Brexit backer, a fact that should not be entirely forgotten when playing up his economic credentials.
As important is that, despite his two years at the Treasury, Sunak is still a relative newcomer. An MP for just seven years, he would be the least experienced prime minister of modern times. This was obvious in the errors that cost him his original place as heir apparent and MPs will worry that he lacks the instinct and skills of a political street fighter. Holding on to a US green card and being wholly unprepared for the row over his wife’s “non-dom” status were signs of political naivete.
On the upside, he is serious and diligent and, unlike Truss, a gifted communicator. He will also seek to return the Tories to a core principle, that of being responsible stewards of the economy.
It will also be a remarkable moment for British society. On Diwali, the UK is likely to get its first Hindu and first non-white prime minister. It is a profound statement about modern Britain and one that his party ought to be proud of. While Labour, which is more committed to diversity schemes, has yet to elect anyone but a white man as leader, the Conservatives will have delivered both the first female and first non-white prime ministers.
Britons, be they Tory supporters or not, need this government to succeed in stabilising the country and the economy. It may be that the damage done by the Conservatives means the next election is already forfeited, though two years is a long time.
But Sunak and his colleagues now owe it to the country to restore order, stability and the UK’s reputation in the world. Both the party and, more importantly, the country now need a government that does not treat the nation’s institutions, economy and standing like just one more political game.