The chants of “Rishi, Rishi” rang out across Wembley Arena as the suited candidate seeking to become Britain’s next prime minister bounced on to the stage.
Fans stood and applauded, placards proclaiming “Ready for Rishi” waved vigorously as Mr Sunak raised his arms repeating “thanks” nine times before the crowd finally fell silent.
Somewhere in the wings of the auditorium was Liz Truss, who, if she was not watching a television monitor, would certainly have heard the cheers, much louder than the measured applause she had received a few minutes earlier.
Hers had been an assured but low-key performance, perhaps mindful that every poll and political pundit predicts a resounding victory for her.
Were they right? Had the polls got it dreadfully wrong?
“That was at least five times the support that Liz got,” a Conservative member remarked to The National. “But you’d expect that in London …”
The heady moment of excitement was rapidly replaced with a more sober assessment. The National was sitting between the member, an ethnic Asian man, and another of African heritage. This was a multicultural and metropolitan audience, somewhat different to that of the Tory shires.
But numbering 6,000 the gathering was a hefty chunk of the estimated 160,000 members whose votes will be counted once the deadline of 5pm on Friday has passed.
The winner will then be announced in London shortly after midday on Monday. Despite the late surge for Mr Sunak, it is still likely to be Ms Truss, the no-nonsense Yorkshirewoman who has won the support of grassroot rural Tories with her promises of tax cuts and a smaller state.
There could still be a major surprise with a late surge for the underdog. The vast majority of members The National spoke to late on Wednesday night either favoured Mr Sunak or were undecided.
Having met the former chancellor several times, Mahendra Pankhania, 64, was impressed. “He's a terrific guy and an ideal prime minister.” But he did not think Mr Sunak would ultimately succeed. “There are other factors at play, including the colour of his skin, I’m sorry to say. There's also a tinge of jealousy at his success at such a young age. But Rishi is disciplined, selfless and he makes a constant effort. He's got faith and that creates faith in people around him.”
Payal Patel, 43, believed Mr Sunak was “very clear on the economic side” and “what he's proposing makes a lot more sense” than Ms Truss. “I don't have faith in her in terms of economics, her plan is too different to Mr Sunak.”
Fund manager Graham Matthews, 55, was among those undecided. “We need sensible policies on the economy and I certainly don't believe in the concept that you can borrow your way out of everything, so from an economic perspective I would probably go for Rishi.”
So how could Liz Truss earn his vote? “Probably some recognition that if we do borrow heavily that's going to lead to higher inflation and higher interest rates,” he said.
Even Truss-supporter Rab Hashem was taken in, calling Mr Sunak “a very impressive performer”. But he then said Mr Sunak was “not fit to be leader because he has just too many attack points for the next general election”. Ms Truss had much more of a “common touch”, being state school educated.
Most astonishing was a Conservative member who said he might vote for Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer if he was on the ballot.
“I don't think there’s a great choice,” said property developer Alex, 63, who declined to give his last name.
“One seems to have a good head on his shoulders in relation to what's going on and the other one has a good head on her shoulders in terms of how to get it done. I can't really decide so I thought I'd hear them tonight. I'm genuinely not very happy about it all and if Keir Starmer was a bit more to the right, then I’d vote for him. The Conservatives just seem to be in a race to the bottom.”
Into the Arena
It has also been a long leadership race. After a string of Cabinet resignations in early July, including Mr Sunak’s, it finally became clear to Boris Johnson that his premiership was untenable.
His resignation on July 7 triggered a Conservative leadership election that at least shone a light on some capable figures, such as Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat. But ultimately the election among MPs threw up the two candidates always predicted to get through to the final pairing.
After two months of campaigning, there was still energy in their step as they took to their last of 12 political hustings across Britain.
The Tories recognise that it has been a divisive campaign and, before introducing Ms Truss into the arena, former leader Iain Duncan Smith urged unity. “Disunity leaves political parties in the wilderness for a long, long time,” he warned, alluding to the 13 years his party was kept out of power from 1997.
In Liz we Truss
Ms Truss’s initial speech echoed much of what she had said before on cutting taxes. Only the later prodding by LBC host Nick Ferrari appeared to jerk her into life.
Given her rival’s support in the arena, could there be a “90th minute surprise” he asked.
She appeared to baulk at the question and, perhaps unnerved by her rival's support, made a series of pledges that could well prove troubling in the months to come.
Would she introduce tax increases, Mr Ferrari twice asked. “Yes, no new taxes,” she responded, to applause.
Would she get rid of smart motorways, allegedly to blame for several fatalities, an audience member asked. Yes, she would.
But she failed to take the red meat on offer when asked if she would keep her British-made armoured Jaguar car or go with the police recommendation of a German Audi. She would be more focused on governing “than the car I’m in”.
A windfall tax on energy companies? Absolutely not. Energy rationing? No.
Would she keep the £100,000 golden wallpaper infamously purchased by the Johnsons for the Downing Street flat? Yes. And the £500 kitchen tablecloth? “I am from Yorkshire so I do believe in value for money,” she said to her loudest cheer. “I don’t think I will have time to think about wallpaper.”
Her first foreign trip, she confirmed, would be to Ukraine. “President Zelenskyy is an inspiration,” she said breathlessly.
Unlike his rival, Mr Sunak stayed on his feet while answering questions, a technique that engaged with the audience.
He defended the energy windfall tax he imposed earlier this year. “When energy companies make billions of pounds profit because of a war, that’s not right”. He also did not rule out energy rationing.
He did argue that his economics would get inflation down from its current 10 per cent. “I can guarantee inflation will fall far faster with my plan than anyone else’s.”
Watched by his parents and wife, emotion almost overwhelmed him when he admitted that the past two years as chancellor had meant “I was not present in my wife’s or daughters’ lives”.
But it had meant he was able to set up the Covid-19 furlough scheme that had “saved 10 million jobs”.
That remark was followed by more applause, chants of “Rishi” and a waving off-stage departure more akin to a US presidential exit.
The winner is …
It has been an exhausting campaign for both. In America an incumbent president is given nearly three months to regain strength and consider policies after the gruelling election race before assuming office.
The next British prime minister will have just over a day to recuperate and reflect before the journey to Balmoral on Tuesday afternoon to be appointed by the queen then return to Downing Street to select their government to tackle the impending economic crisis.
“They will hit the ground running,” said one observer at Wembley. “But it will be with a punch to the face.”