British politics seems to be on a loop tape. Here we are again for the second time in under four months – a Prime Minister forced to stand down after losing the confidence of Conservative Members of Parliament, and a bruising leadership contest in prospect. And while we aren’t yet sure who will stand, the two leading contenders are likely to be Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Boris Johnson, who may seek a sensational political comeback.
This will be Rishi Sunak’s second bid for the top job, and this time around, he could make it. Conservative MPs will vote on Monday and then the two front-runners will face an online poll of Conservative Party members with the result announced next Friday, October 28.
Rishi Sunak has huge advantages: he has more support among Conservative Members of Parliament than any other likely contender; he had warned that Liz Truss’s plans for unfunded tax cuts would lead to disaster, as has proved to be the case; and he is seen as a competent manager of the economy who enjoys the confidence of the financial markets.
But the looming shadow is of Rishi Sunak’s former boss, Boris Johnson, whose final words in Parliament a few weeks ago were “Hasta la Vista, Baby!”, the Arnold Schwarzenegger catchphrase which translates as “See you later”. It was a clear indication that he hoped to return to the top job, though not even he would have imagined that the opportunity would come so soon.
One of the many curiosities of Britain’s unwritten constitution is that when a Prime Minister resigns – whether through illness, ineptitude or in disgrace – it doesn’t automatically lead to a general election. Once the governing party has chosen a new leader, that person becomes Prime Minister. This time, candidates for Conservative leader need the support of at least 100 Conservative MPs for their nomination to go forward. Rishi Sunak should be able to attract that number; Penny Mordaunt, who may seek to stand as a unity candidate, could just get over that hurdle; Boris Johnson may find it difficult to attract that level of support. But if he does emerge as one of the top two preferred candidates among MPs, then he stands a strong chance of winning. Among rank-and-file Conservative Party members who will make the final decision, he remains popular and the meltdown under Liz Truss has convinced some that the party made a huge mistake in getting rid of him.
So while Rishi Sunak may well be the favourite, nothing is certain in British politics at the moment.
In the few months since he lost the last leadership contest to Liz Truss, Sunak has kept a low profile. When Truss’s economic policies came spectacularly unstuck, he avoided the temptation of trumpeting “I told you so!” But he remains deeply ambitious – and this is likely to be his last chance to become PM. Vanishingly few politicians have a third chance to lead their party.
Sunak’s Indian heritage was not an issue in the last leadership contest, and it won’t be in this. There may be a few Conservatives who are reluctant to endorse a person of colour as party leader, but they are a vanishing bunch. The Conservatives have a better record of inclusivity on both race and gender than any other major British political party. But Sunak’s wealth may be an issue. British voters tend not to mind leaders who come from an elite background, but they are suspicious of those who are so rich that they are almost on a different planet in terms of lifestyle. Some will say how can someone who has no financial worries at all understand the plight of ordinary people enduring a profound cost of living crisis?
During the last campaign, Sunak at times came across as arrogant and unwilling to listen. And while the row about the tax privileges of his wife, Akshata Murthy, is an old story, and her decision to renounce ‘non domicile’ status took the sting out of the issue, it’s led to lingering doubts about Sunak’s political judgement. Didn’t he realise that it would be politically unacceptable for him to raise taxes on ordinary people which his wife would be able to side-step?
One of the most reliable indicators of who may win is the odds the political betting markets are offering. When I checked a short while ago, Rishi Sunak remained the betting favourite – but the odds on Boris Johnson are narrowing, suggesting that he is seen as in with a chance.
If Rishi Sunak does get the top job, he will have the arduous task of leading a demoralised and divided Conservative Party and of navigating a route out of an acute economic crisis. Inflation is likely to get still worse before it gets better; painful public spending cuts are looming. It’s likely that whoever leads the Conservative Party will lose the next general election, which has to be held by the end of 2024. The best Sunak can hope for is two years in 10 Downing Street.
It would of course be a huge moment for a politician of Indian origin to become head of government in a major western democracy. It doesn’t mean the final banishing of the ugly shadow of Empire, it doesn’t signal an end to racist attitudes in Britain, but it would suggest that we’re making progress.
But India should not imagine that a ‘desi’ in Downing Street will do them any favours. He will be Britain’s Prime Minister, not India’s.
(Andrew Whitehead was a Political Correspondent and an India Correspondent during his 35-year career with BBC News.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.