End of the political road for Rishi Sunak?
Mary Elizabeth Truss popularly known as Liz Truss is the new Prime Minister of Britain. Her predecessor Boris Johnson had announced his intention to give up office in July after it had become untenable for him to continue on account of public perceptions of his overlooking scandalous conduct of some of his close associates. It then took two months for the ruling Conservative Party to select his successor. That process was completed on September 5 with Liz Truss convincingly beating Rishi Sunak. After that Johnson met Queen Elizabeth to tender his resignation on September 6.
Soon afterwards, Truss had an audience with the Queen who invited her to form a new government. A short statement from the Palace followed and with that Britain had a new Prime Minister. There are no elaborate or public oath taking ceremonies in Britain of a new Prime Minister. Privately, it is believed, that the politician who accepts that post kisses the monarch’s hand to pledge loyalty. Similarly, the appointment of ministers is approved by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister and they begin work. Ministers have to be members of Parliament though. As a country Britain continues ceremonies but most of them are associated with the monarch and with institutions.
In the leadership struggle Truss was able to overcome Sunak with a convincing margin. She secured 81326 votes of Conservative party members who were eligible to vote in Johnson’s successor while Sunak got 60399 votes. But the numbers do not tell the whole story of a process which reveals the state of British society and polity. Sunak led an initial field of eight candidates as long as the process was confined to Conservative party members of Parliament. However, now other Conservative party members also have a say. These include those in the constituencies and various Party boards and the total number of eligible voters is 172000. Once the process moved outside members of Parliament Liz Truss became the clear favourite. In a report the BBC noted that ‘research suggests’ that members of political parties, including the Conservative party, “tend to be older, more middle class and more white”.
The policies that Truss outlined were more populist than those of Sunak. She promised to ensure that people had more money to spend. She also pledged to ensure that energy costs, which have spiralled in Britain, consequent to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, would become sustainable. Sunak who as Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) in Boris Johnson’s cabinet was acutely aware of the challenges that the British economy was facing remained focussed, in the initial stages of his campaign, on harsh measures needed to control inflation. Later, as Truss, who was the Foreign Secretary in Johnson’s cabinet, surged ahead Sunak also pledged a cut in income tax. However, his image as someone who would not promise the relief that Truss was committed to remained.
While the economic policies of the Truss and Sunak may have played a part with the eligible Conservative voters, the biases of ‘older, more middle class and more white members’ among them can hardly be overlooked. Sunak is a man of colour; he is Hindu and makes no attempt to hide his religion. He practises his religion openly and does not eat beef. His wife who is the daughter of the founder of the celebrated Indian tech company Infosys is also a Hindu. Would Sunak’s background not have mattered with a sufficient number of ‘older, more middle class and more white’ Conservative party members? Britain is changing and that is reflected both in its society and politics but has it changed sufficiently to have a practising Hindu or for that matter a Muslim, as its Prime Minister? The answer has to be in the negative despite the fact that other leading offices of state have been held by persons who are Hindu or Muslim. This is because it is one matter to be a member of government, howsoever, influential and quite another to be the monarch’s first minister.
Is this the end of the political road for Rishi Sunak? While nothing can ever be firmly predicted in the politics of any country it is rare for a person who goes for the top political contest and has been defeated to rise again and succeed. Most politicians who lose a Presidential contest in the US—not the nomination for the Presidency of their party---have never had a second chance. After the second World War only Richard Nixon who lost the election to John Kennedy came back to win the Presidency in 1968 and again in 1972. In Britain, Winston Churchill lost the general election in 1946 but emerged victorious to become the Prime Minister in 1951. These examples notwithstanding it is difficult to visualise the political resurrection of Rishi Sunak in Conservative party politics in the near future unless Liz Truss’s administration which is facing formidable challenges on the economic front makes such a mess that the tide turns against her decisively and Sunak feels brave enough to make another bid.
As Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has directly dealt with India-British ties. The focus of both countries in the immediate future will be on trying to tie up a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Reports indicate that some progress has been made. After Brexit Britain needs to enhance its commercial ties with India which is overtaking it as the world’s fifth largest economy. However, FTAs are always very difficult to be finalised. So, it remains to be seen if one will be achieved in the near future.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.