Boris Johnson is doomed, but Rishi Sunak might not be the saviour the Tories crave
Downing Street’s May 2020 bring-your-own-booze party has reignited the despair about Boris Johnson’s leadership that the remaining Conservative optimists hoped might disappear over the winter break. Now, though, the blaze has revived with a vengeance. Johnson’s apology to the Commons does not solve this in any way.
The apology merely confirms what was already clear: an astonishingly insensitive breach was committed at the height of the first lockdown. This dereliction did not just feature Johnson as a participant: it was marked by his very character. His apology, with its continued pretence about a work event within the regulations, lacks either moral worth or political credibility.
Conservative MPs are well aware their leader is a dodgy chancer. Some of them actively admire this. Others are happy to profit from it. Many loathe it while quietly despising themselves for permitting it. But the style works only while it succeeds. Most Tories had put Johnson on probation after his spectacularly disastrous December. The fresh explosion this week means they are now looking more urgently than before at the alternatives.
Tory MPs find themselves on the threshold of a leadership change. Sue Gray’s report will be important in shaping the timing of the outcome, but her findings could be a lose-lose for Johnson either way. If Gray blames the prime minister, he will struggle not to be brought down directly. If she lets him off in some way, his authority will not suddenly be restored. Tory MPs hold all the cards.
All of which explains why the party is moving towards its third leadership election in six years. The Johnson experiment seems to have almost run its course. It is a remarkable turn of events that Tory party members – demographically so deeply unrepresentative of modern Britain – should again be asked to choose the prime minister. Johnson was the first PM ever chosen in this way, and it has been a terrible precedent.
Much should now be written about the candidates already quietly vying for the leadership. There they were, in a row beside Johnson along the frontbench as he tried to eat humble pie at prime minister’s questions: Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Michael Gove. All of them harbour hopes of climbing to the top of the greasy pole when Johnson falls, as fall he surely must now.
Yet the key figure is the man who, rather conspicuously, wasn’t there at all: Rishi Sunak is the one to beat in this contest. Although he came just behind Truss in a recent ConservativeHome poll of party members, he was ahead of her in this week’s Sky/YouGov survey of members. Crucially, according to the Observer/Opinium poll over Christmas, he would do far better for the Tories in a general election than either Johnson or Truss. That finding will play massively in his favour among MPs.
It needs saying that the ascent of Sunak would be remarkable. He would be the first person of Asian heritage, and the first person of colour, to become prime minister and to lead a major British political party. That would be another sign, if one were needed, of the immense capacity of the Tory party to adapt to social and cultural change. Other parties can only watch in frustrated envy.
But there is much more to Sunak’s success, if it happens, than this. On my bookshelves stands a copy of the historian Robert Blake’s biography of the former Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law. With neat historical symmetry, Bonar Law emerged to become Tory leader 100 years ago – the Tory backbench 1922 Committee owes its name to the machinations that overthrew David Lloyd George and took Bonar Law to Downing Street. But it is the title of Blake’s book that matters. It is called The Unknown Prime Minister.
It is a title that will soon have to be used again. Sunak may not have risen without trace, but his ascent has been unusually rapid. He only entered the Commons in 2015, succeeding William Hague as MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire. He has only been a minister since 2018. He then raced up the ministerial ladder after being handpicked by Johnson (with some encouragement from Dominic Cummings) to succeed Javid as chancellor less than two years ago.
Although Sunak has been chancellor during the greatest peacetime crisis of the modern era, he is extremely inexperienced. This is something that every Tory MP whom I contacted for this article remarked on. “The honest answer is that we really don’t know if he cuts it,” said one former cabinet minister. Others fear that Sunak, who is exceptionally wealthy, operates within his own bubble and is too close to Dominic Cummings, who is keen to destabilise Johnson.
This is particularly important because Sunak’s popularity, which was very high when he was doling out public money to support the economy during the first phases of Covid, seems to be ebbing. The return of inflation, the imminence of the tax rises that he announced in the autumn budget and the expected big hike in energy charges from April are combining to make Sunak a less voter-friendly minister these days.
For the most part, Sunak has gone along with Johnson’s willingness to spend. But the borrowing and taxation that have marked his chancellorship are not popular across the party. A significant minority of Tory MPs remain avid disciples of the small state, low taxation and privatisation of Margaret Thatcher’s era. Most of what Sunak has said since entering politics – to say nothing of his own wealth – suggests that he is broadly sympathetic to this approach too.
We have probably all been in a position a bit like the one in which the Tory party finds itself. Something goes bang with your car. You get an estimate done at the garage, and the cost of the repairs seems eye-watering. Do you go ahead, throwing good money after bad? Or do you start thinking it would be better to get a more reliable new vehicle?
The answer is not to be dazzled by the brochures, and to think before you buy. Johnson’s looming failure may be very much his own doing, but its consequences will be felt right across the Tory party and beyond. The electoral coalition that Johnson created in 2019 may not outlive his fall. Sunak and Truss, the apparent frontrunners to succeed, would struggle to maintain the kind of appeal that Johnson achieved.
The Tory party should not deceive itself about Sunak. Electing him would be an act based on hope rather than experience. Given that this is what the party also did in choosing Johnson, it is something of which they should be particularly wary.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian associate editor and columnist