Sunak’s missed opportunity

Published by The i paper (1st August, 2022)

The bandwagon is rolling for Liz Truss as ballot papers go out to Tory members who will choose our next prime minister. She is ratcheting up endorsements from leadership rivals and ministers from all wings of the party, having slogged her way through to the final stage. Polling suggests the party membership is tilting towards her, the bookies have installed her as hot favourite and Rishi Sunak shows signs of being flustered, spraying around policy announcements with an air of desperation.

Tory leadership contests have a habit of delivering surprises. But the sudden rush of backing for Truss from key players – the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, former Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and former leadership rival Tom Tugendhat, with the Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi expected to follow suit – shows which way the wind is blowing. Plumping for the losing candidate can have severe career repercussions in Westminster – although there seems little enthusiasm for either of them. “If you ask who I want as prime minister, the real answer is neither,” said one prominent Truss supporter.

Sunak backed Brexit, won every round of voting by MPs and is more popular with swing voters – although the party is in such a strange mood after Boris Johnson’s reign that it places low premium on electability. The former chancellor is taking on the longest-serving member of the Tory Government in a nation despairing of its deceit and ineptitude, fighting a woman who cosplays Margaret Thatcher yet left minimal trace in five cabinet positions.

He is affable and bright. His life story speaks to the right’s love of aspiration and success, as proven in one of the debates when he passionately defended his wealthy father-in-law. Yet his campaign is crashing.

I met Sunak for the first time shortly after he was appointed to lead a new black and ethnic minority unit at the conservative Policy Exchange think-tank. Although only nine years ago, this was a very different political era under a coalition government. Sunak came up to say hello at an event discussing immigration, saying how much he liked my stance on the subject. This was unusual in Tory circles; my liberal views on this issue had even sparked headlines about David Cameron’s former speechwriter attacking the Government. Obviously I liked him.

The following year Sunak won the battle to take over William Hague’s safe seat in Yorkshire. Soon after, he told me he had been reading my articles about the struggles facing people with disabilities and wanted to act. So he decided to focus on the Changing Places campaign, providing specially equipped toilets with hoists and space for carers for use by people, such as my daughter, with complex disabilities. He promoted this cause first in his constituency after winning the seat, then as a local government minister pushed it for all new or refurbished state buildings used by the public.

A simple change to building rules will lead to 150 new Changing Places facilities a year. After his sudden elevation to chancellor, Sunak earmarked a small pot of cash for councils to build another 500 in public places. He told me once that although this issue was unglamorous and would never win headlines, he knew it made a big difference to the lives of a few people. I was struck by his desire to help deliver dignity and freedom for people with severe disabilities. It was far removed from the platitudes on this issue spouted by most politicians, even if you can argue that as chancellor he could have done much more for carers and people with disabilities.

We also saw this empathetic side of Sunak at the start of the pandemic. When the nation was filled with fear, the little-known new chancellor spoke from the heart about how “we will be judged by our capacity for compassion” as he warned that our survival depended on “individual acts of kindness that we show each other”. His perfectly judged words catapulted him to the top of the cabinet popularity league table. Little did we know that the Prime Minister and his team were going to torpedo any sense of solidarity with their stunningly selfish actions.

Now Sunak’s strategy of presenting himself as the serious player in tough times is stuttering. He looks like the continuity candidate, appeared aggressive in debates and has been wounded by hostility from Boris Johnson’s camp that blames him – rather than the Prime Minister’s own atrocious behaviour – for their hero’s downfall.

His team includes aides infamous for smears and a savage use of dark arts. He is lashing out with unconvincing efforts to woo activists on grammar schools, sending refugees to Rwanda and “woke nonsense” – despite claiming to have “zero interest in fighting a so-called culture war”. And having criticised Truss for proposing to swiftly cut taxes, he announced his own “temporary” cut in VAT on household energy bills.

Incredibly, he has been outflanked on both Brexit and the right by a rival who voted Remain and once argued for abolition of the monarchy during her days as a Liberal Democrat. Truss’s political skills must be admired, given her shifting politics, flip-flopping positions and awkwardness on stage. Yet strangely, she has offered a more authentic presence in this campaign. She is driven, geeky, resolute and has a streak of rebelliousness – even if she is playing down her middle-class roots and brutally demeaning the school in Leeds that helped her to reach Oxford University.

I fear that Sunak will see this campaign as a missed opportunity. He should have been true to himself and campaigned as a compassionate, modern Conservative who believed in aspiration and Brexit, facing down the hardliners and populists. He could have challenged the party to move on from the past, forcing a much needed debate on adapting their small-state ideals to an ageing society with creaking public services rather than simply offering a reheated Thatcherism. He would still probably have lost. But at least he would have gone down with his pride and principles intact.

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