Rishi Sunak leads the field as bruising Conservative leadership race turns nasty

Every one of the candidates is regarded as 'fair game' as ruling party chooses next PM

Rishi Sunak arrives to deliver a speech at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London. AFP
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On Monday, every Conservative Party candidate received a request from central HQ that they should avoid “blue on blue” attacks in the leadership contest now under way.

To say the plea fell on deaf ears is something of an understatement. This is a competition, after all, between true-blue Tories. It’s a gladiatorial squaring up, head to head, and the prize, for ultra-ambitious politicians, of leader and therefore Prime Minister, is the ultimate goal. This is it, a one shot. If you can’t fight clean, choose dirty, or better still, pick both and go for it.

Each of them has their fervent supporters, each is putting their case across to the media and on social media. There are TV debates and hustings scheduled. Whatever the party’s high command may wish, this is going to get nasty.

It’s bound to. Until recently, many of the candidates were members of the same Cabinet. Somehow, they’ve got to find points of difference.

Policy-wise, they were seemingly as one or at least, close; yet here they are, expected to be distinct. A friendly grey blur must quickly become sharply defined black and white.

Character is bound to be pivotal — when said and done, it did for the departing leader. Johnson did not exit because of his policies — even if at times they were difficult to fathom. He was driven from office by his own personality failings and the feeling among MPs, who worry about their own job prospects, that they were so bad the electorate would not wear them.

So, expect personal barbs. Because the competitors won’t wish to be seen to be dissing in public, the brickbats will be hurled in private, via anonymous memos and mysteriously sourced briefing notes circulating on social media, and through unattributed quotes in the press.

Even before Boris Johnson resigned, it was heading that way. The tone was set.

Rishi Sunak’s wife had been a non-domicile for ages; likewise, Sunak held a US immigration green card for several years. There was nothing new about these facts. Yet, suddenly, these two pieces of information were dropped into the public domain.

Timing is everything and in that instance, I would wager they emanated from someone backing the prime minister, who wished to make Johnson look good. There was Sunak, the squeaky clean, rising star who managed, just by existing, to undermine Johnson’s image and authority.

Sunak, whose tabloid nickname was “Dishy Rishi”, had endeared himself to the masses with his furlough and subsidised dining out schemes. He was also serious and responsible, and wanted to cautiously manage the public purse, by raising and definitely not lowering, taxes — something that put him at odds with his carefree boss, Johnson.

He was also wealthy by virtue of his father-in-law being one of the richest men in India. Therefore, however hard he tries, Sunak cannot claim to be in touch with ordinary people. He does, as well, profess to have the UK’s interests at heart. Or does he? Cue the release of the nuggets that his wife enjoys a privileged tax status only available to foreigners and that he wanted to settle permanently in the US. Brilliant.

ROTHESAY, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 07:  Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, wearing a face mask, meets with local business people during a visit on the Isle of Bute on August 07, 2020 in Rothesay, Scotland. In recent media interviews, the chancellor has warned that the current furlough program, which subsidises wages for UK employees whose work was suspended by pandemic lockdowns, is not sustainable for the long term. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The tactic of “get Rishi” still applies. Sunak is the bookies’ favourite; he’s smooth, assured, interviews well, intelligent, never short of an answer. He’s his own man — it was his resignation, along with Sajid Javid, that precipitated Johnson’s final downfall. From the off, Sunak appears the one to beat, and therefore at present, he is the candidate that his fellow would-be party leaders and prime ministers oppose.

So Sunak is not allowed to forget the non-dom and green cards, and he is presented repeatedly as rich, a tax-hiker (which makes him “un-Conservative”), who can take that line, safe in the knowledge whatever increases he proposes won’t affect him.

Behold, a video has cropped up online showing a young, gauche Sunak talking about how he knows working-class folk and how amazed they are when they discover he went to the exclusive, fee-charging Winchester College. As I write this, I guarantee that folks are poring over his father-in-law’s dealings in India and elsewhere. They’re bound to be — the collective objective is to stop, or slow, Sunak.

Sunak is not alone in having access to a fortune. Some of his rivals have also enjoyed successful business and financial careers — notably Nadhim Zahawi, Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid. So, the knives have come out, with demands raised for them and all the contenders to declare their own tax positions and whether they keep offshore trusts. Of course, the more it can be shown that they have managed their riches along similar lines to Sunak, the more it benefits Sunak.

Not that Sunak or his camp would own up to pursuing such a tactic. Oh, no. That’s not how it works. Every one of the candidates is regarded as “fair game”. Proving who is behind a particular piece of mud-slinging in the coming weeks, indeed almost two months, is likely to prove nigh impossible.

Be prepared for the dredging up of peccadilloes, embarrassing footage, awkward-to-explain filings, dubious family members and friendships. If we’re choosing colours to describe what will unfold, it isn’t blue on blue, but black and blue more like.

Published: July 12, 2022, 9:30 AM