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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Fraser Nelson

Tory leadership candidates: Boris Johnson has grassroots mandate, but Rishi Sunak is the bookies’ favourite who stayed out of fray

Rishi Sunak kept a classy distance and is now hotly tipped for top job. Photo: Justin Tallis

Rishi Sunak has hardly said a word in public since losing the leadership election. His allies always suspected the Truss project would implode and that, if so, he’d best keep a respectful distance. No smugness, no sniping, no schadenfreude.

He’d be the king over the water, keeping a classy distance and leaving others to bend the knee to Liz Truss. And if his party panics and needs a prime minister to calm the bond markets, well, they know who to call.

Now, once again, Sunak is the bookmakers’ favourite. Once again, his allies say he has the greatest support among MPs so is best placed to command parliamentary consensus. He can now claim vindication, having predicted Trussonomics would send the pound sprawling and interest rates spiking.

As things stand, his most likely rival is Penny Mordaunt, who has a fraction of his experience. MPs want a quick coronation: some say at least 150 of them are now ready for Rishi. So what could possibly go wrong?

Enter Tory HQ. Officials there are fearful that, if they cut members out of the decision, they could be sued by someone claiming a constitutional right to vote on a new party leader. That’s why there’s a plan to let the members choose between the final two candidates, if the second candidate cannot be prevailed on to drop out.

If it’s Mordaunt, she prob- ably would. But opinion polls show these Conservative Party members already have a favourite who, if he gets that far, is unlikely to bow out: a certain Boris Johnson.

This might sound unbelievable, but the unbelievable has been happening on an almost daily basis in British politics.

Let’s consider the case for Johnson. He is the reason many of these 357 Tories are in parliament in the first place. His claim to No 10 is not based on an MPs’ stitch-up but 14 million votes and a landslide victory. The Conservatives have found that forcing out an election-winning leader is hard: things can fall apart. It’s harder for other leaders to claim legitimacy. Boris has a stronger democratic claim to No 10 than any other contender.

I was chatting to a group of one-nation Conservative MPs recently, who are by no means Johnson’s core vote. But even they were reminiscing about his electoral magnetism, his impact during by-election visits, and how there is nothing – or no one – like it.

Given that most Tory MPs now expect to lose their seat at the next election – some are even talking about how they’d struggle to find work and pay bills – they need a winner more than anything else. They may hate Johnson, but they could vote for him out of sheer survival instinct.

But then again, think of the chaos. The Liz Truss administration collapsed because her No 10 was a disgraceful shambles, unable to control parliament or government. This was precisely what led MPs to ditch Johnson.

The scandals, the inquiries, his all-too-realistic persona of a prime minister who might accidentally rest his briefcase on the nuclear button: it all just became too much. He quit, in the end, because so many MPs resigned from his government in protest at the general bedlam.

He’d need 100 MPs to get to the nomination: quite a hurdle for someone who only recently faced a confidence vote. Already, some MPs are threatening to resign the whip if he returns. So while he’ll toy with the idea of a De Gaulle-style comeback, he may well decide to stick to his more agreeable world of €350,000-a-night speeches, American spa hotels and mournful emails from politicians saying how much better things were under him. Above all, the British government needs competence. Can he persuade his party that he’s the best man to deliver it?

The Conservatives do have time. Technically, the next general election doesn’t need to be called until the start of 2025. The markets might calm down in general (wholesale gas prices are nearing normal levels) and inflation looks set to peak soon. Labour has not yet had the kind of close scrutiny that would be applied to a future government – its front bench is nowhere near the calibre of Tony Blair’s original line-up.

Only a few weeks ago, these options – Rishi by Christmas, a Boris restoration – were just joked about at the Tory conference. Now, together with a Penny reign, they are the three most likely options for Britain’s future. All are more viable than Liz Truss’s shambolic attempt at the premiership.

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