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Paul Vallely: Sunak attempts to get back on track

28 October 2022

His brief utterances so far give some cause for hope, says Paul Vallely

Rishi Sunak is congratulated at Conservative Party HQ in Westminster, London, on Monday

Rishi Sunak is congratulated at Conservative Party HQ in Westminster, London, on Monday

BRITISH politics is proceeding at breakneck speed. But it is worth pausing this fast-forward to consider the implications of the leadership contest which led to Rishi Sunak’s becoming our third Prime Minister in two months. A variety of styles and degrees of political judgement were on display.

The most dramatic was that of Boris Johnson, who took politicians and commentators by surprise by declaring his intention to run for the job only a few months after being ignominiously ejected from Downing Street, after more than 60 members of his own party resigned from his government. Then, equally dramatically, he withdrew from the contest, having marched his supporters up the hill and stranded them there.

This provided an apposite coda to Mr Johnson’s disastrous premiership — for it, too, was characterised by hubris, bluster, spin, and a need to blame others. After simply assuming that supporters would flock to his cause, when they didn’t, Johnson aides began spreading rumours about Mr Sunak returning to California. They then made unsubstantiated claims about the numbers who were ready to “back Boris”. And when his bubble of self-delusion burst, the former PM blamed “both Rishi and Penny” for failing to defer to him “in the national interest”.

He finally pulled out only when he realised that proceeding would have publicly exposed just how feeble his support really was. Right-wing Tories fulminated that he had killed off the chance of one of their number standing. Tory activists felt that his withdrawal cheated them of a vote. At the end, he was in a weaker position than he would have been had he remained on his Caribbean sun lounger. We are well rid of this style of politics.

Penny Mordaunt cut a more ambiguous figure. Presenting herself as “the unity candidate”, she scrabbled around frantically to woo former Boris backers. When she failed to meet the nomination threshold, she withdrew, and pledged her loyalty to the unassailable Mr Sunak. But she did so with only two minutes to go before nominations closed, which rather diminished the graciousness of her concession. Her politicking diminished her somewhat, too.

By contrast, Mr Sunak seems to have learned from experience. Having been accused of stabbing Mr Johnson in the back last time, he tried to shed his image as a plotter by keeping a studiously low profile once Liz Truss became PM. And, having previously faced awkward questions over his wife’s non-dom status and tax affairs, he generally eschewed the public spotlight.

When he became party leader, but not yet Prime Minister, his first speech was given in private to Tory MPs with no cameras present. His first public utterance was graceful but brief and rather vague. The fact that he felt the need to promise to act with integrity and humility shows how low the Conservative Party has fallen. Outside No.10 he was brief, too, though he accepted that “some mistakes “had been made by his party”, and warned that there were “difficult decisions to come”.

There is a new seriousness about this — as there was, with the odd exception, about his carefully balanced Cabinet reshuffle. That is to be welcomed. Whether it will be enough to save the country, we are about to discover.

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