Voices: Rishi Sunak needs to take risks – the contest has turned on its head

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The former chancellor has been transformed from front runner to challenger in the matter of a few minutes (PA)
The former chancellor has been transformed from front runner to challenger in the matter of a few minutes (PA)

The most unexpected development of the Conservative leadership campaign is that Rishi Sunak, who voted Leave, has been painted as an honorary Remainer, while Liz Truss, who voted Remain, has been acclaimed by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries as “probably a stronger Brexiteer than both of us”.

The side effect of this looking-glass reversal is that Penny Mordaunt, a Leaver who is still regarded as a Leaver, has taken a commanding lead in the election. Despite Sunak leading in the first ballot of MPs, Mordaunt’s lead in a YouGov poll of Tory party members has made her the sudden favourite to win the final stage of the contest, which will be decided by those party members.

It now looks as if the final two candidates will be Sunak and Mordaunt, so the former chancellor has been transformed from front runner to challenger in the matter of a few minutes.

That means Sunak has to tear up his strategy and fight an underdog campaign. His campaign launch was a safety-first operation, taking only four questions from journalists – and that was after one soft question from a Tory supporter. He now needs to play to his strengths, which include having been tested in a crisis, and being an exceptional communicator.

He should now hold long press conferences in which he answers all the questions that journalists can throw at him. Some of them are difficult. Why did he keep a US green card while he was chancellor last year? Why did he think his wife’s favourable tax status could be kept private? Will he publish his tax return?

But these are questions to which the public are entitled to expect an answer, and he has to answer them in some form. He is more capable at answering tough questions than anyone else in the field, so he has to show it. He has to show that he is not like Boris Johnson, who was kept away from journalists in the last leadership campaign and during the general election – at one point hiding in a walk-in fridge.

Sunak has a Blair-like ability to appear to be answering questions even when he is not quite doing so, but also to explain the reasons for his answers. He now needs to come out fighting for – and explaining – his case. He has a strong argument to make on fiscal responsibility and paying for help with the cost of living which the “fairytale” tax cutters cannot match. Mordaunt has not been the most extreme of the tax cutters, but she is proposing cuts in fuel duty and raising tax thresholds in line with inflation, both of which are expensive and in neither case has she explained how they would be paid for.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

The paradox of Sunak is that he has generally positioned himself in the sweet spot of the general electorate, as a Brexit centrist. When he was popular, Johnson described himself as a Brexity Hezza, pro-Leave but interventionist on the economy, and that seemed to be Sunak’s territory.

But the Brexit revolution has rolled on, devouring its children on the way, and now Sunak’s popular economic measures to save jobs during the coronavirus crisis and to protect people on low incomes from high energy bills have been derided by elements of the Tory party as contrary to “Conservative values”, which suddenly has nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with fantasy tax cuts.

If Sunak is going to turn this remarkable looking-glass campaign round again, he is going to have to fight for it. He is going to have to show that he can win over the floating voters who will decide the next general election – voters who mostly have no idea who Mordaunt is. It is time for the former chancellor to find the equivalent of John Major’s soapbox.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting