Less than a year ago Rishi Sunak looked inevitable. His training for Number 10 involved standing next to Boris Johnson, spraying money at people, and waiting. The lucky contrast with his feckless boss allowed Sunak to acquire a not entirely merited reputation for competence. It began to be felt that Sunak was everything Johnson was not. “A good man”, said Matthew Paris. A “highly disciplined, rational individual”, drawled William Hague. He would have won this contest easily had it been held as recently as January.
Last night, at Wembley, Sunak was self-deprecating and valedictory. He said thank you nine times to 7,000 Tory activists. It was his final chance to say something meaningful. We had a rote stump speech, with a few extra notes of strangled emotion, from a campaigner who’d already lost.
Outside the arena, his supporters queued for warm white wine, clothed in various blues, and brave face grimaced when asked how Sunak lost to a panto-Thatcher act. “Rishi will fight to the end”, said Rohan Thandi, a perilously young Durham student. “The one candidate who will never give in.”
They believed he would linger on the backbenches after this maiming. But most backbenchers don’t have a deluxe Santa Monica escape hatch to drop through. After this disaster, will he still be milking constituents’ cows in North Yorkshire in ten years’ time?
For it was a disaster. Sunak’s undoubted work ethic, his ability to absorb data, and his uxoriousness have counted for nothing. Pitched as an antidote and a rebuke to the tribal giggling and fecklessness of the Johnson era, Sunak has been outmanoeuvred by the candidate in the field who most resembled Johnson. Restored sanity is less enjoyable than more cake.
Relaxed and winner confident on the arena stage, Truss cut more slices: she would never, ever introduce new taxes. By going full cake, Truss has forced Sunak to become the establishment candidate. Sunak was the teenage Brexiteer who gave off a Remain air; the creedal Thatcherite who sounded like Tony Blair; the unironic patriot who looked less loyal to old traditions than his opponent, who once wanted to put the monarchy on the chopping block. He was a conservative saint with a liberal halo.
Appropriately then, Wembley prefered Sunak to Truss — his welcome was louder, and longer than Truss’s was. The Conservative Party here in Wembley doesn’t look that much different from the people in the streets around the arena. Chuntering old colonels are thin on the ground. Despising net zero targets and believing a woman is a woman cuts across ethnicities.
But the support of London, like the endorsement of The Times, and the blessings of Michael Gove, were another sign that Sunak had the establishment on side. The party may be run and funded from London, but its spirit, and its insurgent energies gather outside the city. Sunak needed Stroud, Ludlow, and Stafford in the last six weeks, not London. He needed the Telegraph, not The Times.
Regional Tory members are small town car dealers, borough councillors, and third generation family butchers, but after Brexit, their politics are gloomy and radical. They feel disenfranchised by their party; they feel anxiously, down in their marrow, that something vague but critical is under siege. Like Roger Scruton, they feel the “old courtesies and decencies are disappearing”.
Their answer to end this season of insanity, poll after poll showed, is simple. Given the choice, they would landslide Boris Johnson back to the top of the Conservative Party. The next best thing is Truss. Her gags are not as good as Boris’ were, but she tells them what they want to hear: I will shrink the state. I will cut taxes.
Sunak’s response was a one man show where he split himself apart several times over. He promised to “tell the truth” — then told Tory members what he thought they wanted to hear. In Belfast: Sunak condemned benefits scroungers, after posing with a missile launcher slightly taller than he was. In Manchester: Sunak claimed fantastically to be “the most Northern chancellor in seventy years” to a room of Red Wall Tories. In Perth: Sunak laughed off the idea he would scrap the transport-them-to-Rwanda migration plan that (in saner times) he had “hoped to block”.
At Wembley, he resorted to the same clichés and worn-out formulas. “Maxing out the credit card” was wrong; only he could “safely steer us through the storms ahead”. Meanwhile Truss vigorously slagged off Sadiq Khan; the members screamed, and punched the air in gratitude. There was the difference in miniature. She knew what they wanted. Sunak was still the man who betrayed Boris, and raised national insurance.
This oddly static contest began in July but ended three months before in April. That was when Sunak Hindenburged. The revelation: his wife was a non-dom; he held a green card. He came across as shifty and disloyal. Nationally, his polling slipped 26 points, below Johnson’s for the first time. Among party members, the revelations about Sunak’s tax affairs did more damage to him than anything else. Truss began the contest with a polling lead of 24 points. Sunak’s team ordered miniature #ReadyForRishi bottles of suncream for journalists and made him do unsteady culture war pirouettes. By late August Truss’s advantage over Sunak had widened to 38 points.
Sunak is not a chest-beater. When he promised a “major crackdown” on grooming gangs yesterday, he was less at ease than when he talked about the Bank of England. Simply: he is not crass enough to convince as a culture warrior. St Crispin’s Day exhortations turn to ashes in his mouth. “What’s the point in stopping bulldozers in the green belt” Sunak yelled at one early campaign stop, “if we allow Left-wing agitators to take a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values.” Do we think Sunak had anything to do with lines like that? All Sunak’s attempts to play this low enforced the impression that he was an establishment candidate, incapable of imagination, performing the stock idea of what an insurgent candidate should be.
If Sunak was what his supporters said he was — a brilliant, efficient, presiding mind — shouldn’t he have done better than this? Early in August, he told county Tories about his Californian dreams. Solid burghers and Ludlow retirees listened to Sunak lavish praise on Silicon Valley. Were his idols Churchill and Disraeli, or the podcasting investment gurus and austerely hoodied tech founders of San Francisco? The impression intensified at one early hustings in Eastbourne, where Sunak said the word “California” three times in ten minutes. “He kept talking about California and tech”, moaned one campaign source. They said Eastbourne, on August 5th, was the moment Sunak’s own team realised he was on Pacific, not Greenwich Standard time. Telling Britain-is-best audiences to slavishly follow foreign patterns was an avoidable self-own.
You began to wonder whether his reputation had always been a mirage. On Sunak world they had stressed his brow-furrowed, adult man competence. He promised he would tell the truth. Michael Gove, introducing Sunak, said that his man always told the truth. “I’m prepared to tell people”, Sunak said in July, “that you can’t have your cake and eat it”. It came back to “being honest with people about the challenges we face”.
Unlike Truss, he had the power to face unpleasant facts. But unlike Truss he didn’t tell Wembley that he would never introduce new taxes. He was prepared to yarn on about political correctness, but he could never lie about the economic issues he really cared about.
After seven weeks of grinding, Sunak departs leaving one souvenir behind. His one flinty, Darwinian truth for the country. “Are we prepared to earn the success that we need in order to succeed in the world?”, he asked when the campaign began. Britain needed to compete, and its people needed “to be professional and ambitious and strive to be the best at what they do”. Could we be like him?
Though Sunak is young, last night he seemed old. He was an institution man in an era of discredited institutions; a millennial desperate to woo baby boomers; too conventionally serious for a politics now defined by tribal laughter. In the end, he failed his own Darwinian test. He did not have the depth, or like Truss, the ringing shamelessness, to adapt to the struggle.
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