OPINION - Emily Sheffield: Rishi Sunak gets my vote — let’s hope his family knows the sacrifice that it involves

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·4-min read
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 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

Early in May last year I had dinner with a Cabinet Minister, who was extolling the political brilliance of his Prime Minister, confidently pronouncing he would reign for 10 years. The Tories had won the Hartlepool by-election by a landslide. The Red Wall had turned blue, and the Tory party was newly shaped by Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. More sagely, another senior Tory present noted that if Johnson did remain that long, the fallout would ensure the Tories would be in the wilderness for years, because the party would have been so strongly bent to the character of their leader it would need time to re-form. The former prediction has been averted; the latter might still come true.

A week later, that same minister resigned, something to do with a video and illicit kissing. And a little over a year on, his former boss has crashed and burned too. But only after we endured the most unedifying 36 hours in political history. For Tory politicians, when the end comes it is rarely pretty — this is a party that knows how to brutally defenestrate its own. David Cameron won a sizable and impressive Tory majority in 2015, only to lose the EU referendum a year later, as Johnson, Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove took back control. When I was asked to write for the Spectator shortly after Theresa May took charge in 2016, I warned her to tread carefully. Her time would also come, I said. And it would be at the hands of the same.

I repeat these downfalls for two reasons: the first, the obvious point that being a senior politician is a perilous career. Life led under the coruscating eye of the Westminster media, matched with the adrenaline surge of influence and ambition, will stretch marriages, reputations and friendships to breaking point (many snap and never recover). Even for those rare political individuals with secure values, manageable egos and an average number of character flaws, the sheer volume of decision-making, the constant manipulation of enemies, and rolling events means every political leader feels constantly exposed or under fire.

The price of failing is high — and all leaders fail. The next year for Johnson will be crushing. Reflections on what went wrong will fill waking hours: anger, regret, mixed with humiliation, will arrive in waves as he mourns the prime ministerial life and majority he threw away. Like those before him, he will try to shape his legacy. But history is written by many, not one.

The second reason is to highlight the stark divisions at the centre of the Conservative Party, the same divisions that have beheaded three leaders in succession. It would be wise to avoid crucifying a fourth. MPs, Tory members and ministers need to think long and hard about the path forward. Personally, I’ve long lost sight of what Conservatives stand for. On the one side we have the core Brexiteers, still lobbying for a low-tax, low-regulation, Singapore-on-Thames-style Britain. And among them, those who love an opportunity to stoke a war on anything they consider ‘woke’ and think ripping up the withdrawal agreement over the Northern Ireland protocol is a good thing. On the other side are those who prefer to weave a path between tax cuts and fiscal responsibility, and will try to mend fences with our closest trading partner because our economy needs it.

There are many runners and riders in this race, and the reality is they will have to slide across both those positions if they want to win, while simultaneously painting a post-Brexit vision we can believe in and having a coherent strategy for controlling inflation and easing the cost-of-living crisis. Many problems the next Prime Minister faces will be intractable or involve deeply unpopular long-term decision-making.

These are serious times, and we need a serious contender, not a walking ego, already picking their new wallpaper, hoping to hide the cracks with empty promises of a unified, prosperous Britain, as Johnson did. We need thoughtful legislation, not meat-chucking.

My preference has long been Rishi Sunak. In a column in February I asked him to step forward for his country. But even if he wins, he will not be perfect. Sunak can’t deliver sunlit lands in this economic landscape.

Trust in Westminster and this party will take years to rebuild. And it will come down to the team any winner can persuade to serve alongside them because we need a Cabinet fit for purpose. But most of all, they need to avoid being knifed... by their own.

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