UK PM race: 'dishy' Rishi Sunak rose like a souffle and fell flat

Ex-chancellor is the latest charismatic Conservative Party leadership dead cert who failed to gain the ultimate prize

Rishi Sunak has committed the cardinal sin of any elected politician — of not paying due heed to his electorate. PA
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Poor Rishi Sunak. Tough as politics is, it is impossible not to find a smidgen of sympathy for the would-be Conservative leader.

There he was, not that long ago, the most popular politician in Britain, outscoring all-comers in the polls.

He was the chancellor who supplied folk with eating out vouchers, encouraging them to go to restaurants and pubs, and who soothed worries via the furlough scheme, covering wages when employers couldn’t or wouldn’t. He made easily accessed loans available to small businesses to help them through the pandemic. He was a bountiful figure, considerate, caring and charming.

In a Cabinet weak on talent, Mr Sunak stood out, brimming with energy and thought. Not for nothing was he christened “Dishy Rishi”. His popularity shimmered like a risen souffle at a time of crisis for the nation.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss was nowhere. She was a makeweight, who moved from state post to post without making a mark. She was nice but no superstar, and definitely not a future leader.

How times change. Boris Johnson has gone, and Ms Truss is the new prime minister. For seven weeks, while the contest has been meandering along (“raged” is putting it far too strongly), Mr Sunak has been fighting a losing battle. Increasingly, towards the end, despite his forced jauntiness, he appeared lost and forlorn, as if he could not actually believe what was happening.

He therefore joins the likes of Michael Portillo and Michael Heseltine as charismatic, leadership dead-cert shoo-ins who failed to gain the prize, whose careers reached the heights but not high enough.

Like them, Mr Sunak is entitled to pinch himself and wonder if it’s all a bad dream. Sadly, for him, it’s not. He committed the cardinal sin of any elected politician — of not paying due heed to his electorate. This, despite being oh so intelligent and preparing the campaign groundwork months in advance.

That was part of his problem. He was seen by the party faithful, those who were voting, as too brainy, too quick and smart. This expressed itself, fatally, in a tendency to lecture. Conservative members regard themselves as proudly intelligent, by and large successful types who know what’s what. They do not appreciate being told what to do.

The more empathetic Ms Truss, who could pass for any of their daughters and who when she said she cared seemed as if she meant it, was more on their wavelength.

Yes, Ms Truss was a Remainer, but from the off, and even before the race began, she cloaked herself in the Union Jack, constantly photographed alongside the flag. For an organisation that still worships Margaret Thatcher, she went out of her way to echo their hero, dressing like her and being pictured in an army tank, just like Mrs T. Of course, Ms Truss is no Maggie. She would not pretend otherwise, she’s not that stupid. But even if Ms Truss was part-Thatcher, that would be no bad thing ― and it showed she was thinking along the right lines.

Mr Sunak, by contrast, did not make the connection, not with the membership. He did well with the MPs, ahead with them by a mile, but they were not the ones making the selection.

It was the MPs who deposed Mr Johnson, a move prompted by Mr Sunak’s resignation as chancellor. They were not so bothered by Mr Sunak’s act of ‘betrayal’, especially as it enabled them to topple the prime minister. Their constituency associations saw Mr Sunak’s behaviour differently, categorising him as a traitor, a Brutus that knifed their blond Caesar. He was viewed as someone critically who still retains enormous affection and popularity among the rump of Tories not so exercised by breaches of, as they see them, arcane parliamentary rules.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London on Monday before the former chancellor's defeat was announced. AP

Mr Sunak’s mistake was to equate his Westminster colleagues with those having the final say. They’re different species, as anyone who has been to the party conference can testify. The MPs lauded Mr Sunak for his quickness of thought; they got, too, his desire to balance the books, to keep the nation’s finances on a tight leash. He appealed, despite being a Brexiteer, to the Remainers (it’s a curiosity how Ms Truss and Mr Sunak’s EU positions played out, she a Remainer wooing the Brexiteers, he a Brexiteer winning the approval of the Remainers).

The Remainers are urban, metropolitan, from London and the university cities. They liked Mr Sunak, did not mind his penchant for designer clothes and were admiring of his top-drawer education and investment banking credentials.

The revelation of his US immigration green card and his wife’s non-domicile status went down badly everywhere. But not so much in London, where, at least among Tories, they’re viewed as more normal, as badges. In the provinces, in the rural shires where the leadership electorate lay, the attitude was different. There, having a house in Santa Monica and putting Goldman Sachs on your CV, count for nothing. If anything, they work against you, suggesting you don’t really care about the UK, and certainly not about its Tory bedrock market towns, and that your ambition lies faraway.

Remainers, London city dwellers — they were all rooting for Rishi. They were more forgiving of his tax increases and his determination not to lower them — they believe they’re economically literate and shared his purpose. Not so, elsewhere.

It did not assist Mr Sunak’s cause that the right-wing press were against him. The Telegraph, Sun and Mail all backed Ms Truss, often attacking Mr Sunak with venom. Their favourite “Dishy Rishi” was long gone. Only The Times was in his corner.

Normally, in a general election, what these newspapers say would not matter so much ― the national ballot covers a broad canvas and they carry less weight. In this election, they are the only titles the electorate read, and Mr Sunak was repeatedly scorned for his treachery, belief in high taxes, personal wealth and Home Counties private schooling (Ms Truss constantly played the Yorkshire, state-educated card).

The sense of his isolation was not aided by ministers lining up one by one to declare their support for Ms Truss. It made him seem unpopular as well among his ex-colleagues. The fact they were taking a bet on the likely winner and the person who would have it in their gift to give them a job was not mentioned.

All Mr Sunak could muster were Michael Gove and Dominic Raab. He lacked a heavy-hitting, influential straight-talker like Iain Duncan Smith, who threw his weight behind Truss.

Mr Sunak was the swot who saw it as a natural step to become PM. He should have realised that being too clever by half can get you nowhere.

Tory leadership announcement - in pictures

Published: September 05, 2022, 12:08 PM
Updated: September 06, 2022, 3:08 PM