September 6, 2022 - 7:00am

It could have been worse. Winning 43% of the vote is no humiliation. But he still lost. For the first time in his glittering career, Rishi Sunak has failed. 

So what now? Well, he might learn from one of his predecessors, George Osborne. Though they disagree on Brexit, the two men share much the same political outlook. They’ve also followed remarkably similar paths to public prominence. Both had the good fortune to bag a safe seat at a young age. From that secure base, they benefitted from rapid promotion. Indeed, so fast were their respective ascents that they both became Chancellor before their 40th birthdays. What’s more, they were seen as the natural successors to their respective Prime Ministers. They so nearly had it all. 

Like Osborne in 2016, Sunak is an ex-Chancellor stuck on the backbenches while his arch-rival enters Downing Street. For someone so confident in his abilities (and not without reason) it must be very tempting to quit Parliament and head off to the private sector. 

But that was Osborne’s biggest mistake. When Theresa May called the 2017 snap election, he stood down. At the time it looked like a sensible move. May was all set to win a thumping majority, leaving Osborne with no hope of returning to the frontbenches. 

Of course, what actually happened was that May lost her majority. She should have lost her job too — and may well have done if Osborne had still been in Parliament. Remember that five years ago, the Conservative Parliamentary Party was a lot more Remainer-y than it is now. This was still prior to the departure of the ‘Gaukeward squad’ and the arrival of the Red Wall Tories. Furthermore, the Osborne loyalty network — carefully built-up over his time as Chancellor — was still intact. 

Even if he hadn’t had the support to become leader himself, Osborne would have had the means, motive and opportunity to organise May’s removal. Whether as a replacement PM, or merely as kingmaker, he could have returned to the Cabinet in sardonic triumph. The course of the Brexit negotiations could have been radically altered — not to mention the outcome of the subsequent general election. Who would be Prime Minister now if May had been ousted in 2017? Osborne? Johnson? Corbyn? Someone else altogether? 

We will, of course, never know — because just when it would have mattered most, Osborne wasn’t there. 

Today, the future looks even less certain than it did five years ago. It’s far too early to write off Truss’s chances of winning the next general election. But equally we can’t certain she’ll even make it that far. In fact, just about anything could happen in the next two years. 

Rishi Sunak has already played his part in momentous events. We can be sure that more are heading our way. Does he really want to be absent as and when they happen? Unlike Osborne, he needs to keep in mind the first law of politics, which is that history is made by those who show up. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.