Rishi Sunak looks to rise above the fray at slick Tory leadership launch

Former UK chancellor unveils prominent backers including former leadership rival Grant Shapps

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Rishi Sunak sought to swiftly unite the Conservative Party behind his leadership bid on Tuesday in a launch speech which defended outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and unveiled heavyweight allies for his campaign.

With a slick campaign already assembled and dozens of MPs behind him less than a week after Mr Johnson resigned, Mr Sunak sought to appear above the fray of a fractious campaign by saying he would “not engage in the negativity”.

The choreography at a swish London conference centre included a warm-up act on stage by Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, the most senior Tory figure to have named his favoured candidate for prime minister.

Whispers of a surprise endorsement proved correct when Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced he was ending his own campaign and backing Mr Sunak after failing to gather enough support.

Known for curating his image with branded social media posts, former chancellor Mr Sunak has already recruited thousands of volunteers to his team, and some of his supporters cheered and waved placards as he spoke.

Besides the campaign slogan "Ready for Rishi", the placards that flanked Mr Sunak as he walked on stage proclaimed that he would "rebuild the economy" and "reunite the country".

Mr Sunak had 41 MPs publicly backing him as of Tuesday lunchtime, putting him in a clear lead over rivals such as Penny Mordaunt, Tom Tugendhat and Liz Truss, and ensuring he will clear the 20-vote threshold to make the first ballot.

After Mr Shapps dropped out, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced she would not put her name forward despite being urged to do so by some MPs.

Some of Mr Sunak's backers made the short walk from parliament to work the media huddle outside the conference centre, depicting their candidate as an experienced statesman-in-waiting before a vote has even been cast.

A new prime minister will take on Britain’s formidable challenges in only a few weeks and “there’s only one person who’s got the ability and the track record to do that,” said former minister Robert Jenrick, “and that’s Rishi Sunak”.

Allies praised the furlough scheme that kept many people on a salary during lockdown — “a stroke of genius,” said backer Victoria Prentis MP — and cited his experience of managing that crisis as proof he could handle the job.

Bim Afolami MP laughed off criticism from some of Mr Sunak’s colleagues by paraphrasing former US president Ronald Reagan: “You shall not speak ill of a fellow Conservative”.

Mr Sunak “can appeal to the whole country … north, south, old, young,” Mr Afolami said.

Other big hitters who turned out for Mr Sunak included former defence secretary Liam Fox and ex-party chairman Oliver Dowden, who resigned after the Tories suffered two stinging by-election defeats last month.

But it was not all good news for Mr Sunak, as two Johnson loyalists, cabinet ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries, came out in support of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s campaign.

Tory MPs will whittle the list of candidates down to two in the coming days before the wider party membership picks between the two finalists.

Conservative leadership candidates — in pictures

Under pressure from rivals to make a more concrete commitment to lower taxes, Mr Sunak said it was a question of “when, not if”, but that inflation needed to come down first.

He said he wanted to make Britain the “best place in the world to invest more, train more and, critically, to innovate more,” and, again echoing many of his rivals, use post-Brexit freedoms to ditch unwanted regulations.

Mr Sunak’s warning against “comforting fairytales” in a launch video last week had been seen as a note of caution on the tax rises being promised by virtually all the other 10 candidates.

A leaked dossier circulating among Mr Sunak’s opponents described him as a high-tax chancellor, too close to the discredited Mr Johnson, who had enabled “reckless overspending” that other candidates want to bring down.

Critics also seized on a resurfaced video from a BBC documentary in 2001 in which the wealthy Mr Sunak appeared to say he had no working-class friends.

Sunak supporters waved placards as he launched his campaign at a London conference centre. AP

In his speech, Mr Sunak sought to square the circle of being close to Mr Johnson but also one of the mutineers who brought him down — praising the outgoing leader personally but saying their relationship was “no longer working”.

“Boris Johnson is one of the most remarkable people I've ever met and whatever some commentators may say, he has a good heart,” he said. “Is he flawed? Yes. And so are the rest of us.

“I will have no part in a rewriting of history that seeks to demonise Boris, exaggerate his faults or deny his efforts.”

Like the prime minister, Mr Sunak received a police fine for his involvement in an illegal birthday party during the first coronavirus lockdown, but his resignation letter chided Mr Johnson for a lack of seriousness and competence.

“I am prepared to give everything I have in service to our nation,” he concluded, “to restore trust, rebuild our economy and reunite the country” — phrasing which sceptics consider odd after 12 years of Conservative rule.

“I want to have a grown-up conversation where I can tell you the truth: a better future is not given, it is earned,” he said. “That is why I am standing to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and your prime minister.”

Updated: July 13, 2022, 5:00 AM
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