by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 6
September 2022
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07:00

Don’t do an Osborne, Rishi

Sunak should stay in politics and fight from the backbenches
by Peter Franklin
For the first time in his life, Rishi Sunak has failed. Credit: Getty

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. 

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Matt M
Matt M
25 days ago

I suspect Kemi Badenoch is the one to beat when the top job becomes available again.

Peter B
Peter B
25 days ago

Osborne would never have been elected Conservative leader. Not after 2016 and Project Fear. This is just fantasy.
And quite frankly a good thing too. Osborne was from that generation of politicians (Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Cameron) who welcomed the Russian oligarchs and their dirty money to London. Good riddance.
Boris Johnson has more chance of a comeback than Rishi Sunak.

Daniel G
Daniel G
25 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Not elected, no. But he could have been installed as a ‘caretaker’ PM or even as head of a ‘unity government’ to deliver a 2nd referendum or very soft Brexit.

Susan Lundie
Susan Lundie
24 days ago
Reply to  Daniel G

Blithely overturn Brexit you mean? There was then, as now, no going back. Would you have generously said “fine, we’ll run it again” if Remain had carried the referendum? Of course not! And after the last 6 years of dissembling and daily insults levelled at us from the charmers in Brussels, not to mention the loving care with which they denied their own people the “virtually useless” AZ vaccine in favour of many more months of bad Covid cases waiting for something else, you still cannot see Brussels for the unelected disingenuous self serving technocracy it is?

Last edited 24 days ago by Susan Lundie
Peter B
Peter B
24 days ago
Reply to  Daniel G

And why would we want or need an unelected (your word) “installed” PM ?
I know – someone’s going to pop up now and claim that Liz Truss is one. But that’s really not the same thing and we all know the difference.

Daniel G
Daniel G
20 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

There seems to be some confusion. I was not advocating this position. Indeed, I would have been appalled by it. I was just pointing out that it could (and may have been) done.

Ben J
Ben J
25 days ago

Thank the Lord he didn’t, Gideon is the quintessence of everything I loathe about ‘Wet’ Conservatism.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
25 days ago

This entire counterfactual completely ignores the fact that Johnson was present – he isn’t even mentioned in the article.

There is no chance that the PCP would have followed up May by offering up a brace to the membership that did not include Johnson – they know they would have seen a mass rebellion from the membership. And if Johnson was one of the candidates there is no chance that the membership would have picked someone else – especially not Osborne.

Even after the coup when he wasn’t a candidate, he was still the leader the membership is pining for. Even now.

Last edited 25 days ago by Prashant Kotak
Will Will
Will Will
25 days ago

It is remarkable that I hardly ever agree with anything Frankin writes.

Kerie Receveur
Kerie Receveur
23 days ago

No, thanks. We don’t need any more snakes.