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5 September 2022

Of course Rishi Sunak still thinks he will win

His sustained confidence is baffling – until you remember that this is a man who has won at everything he has ever done.

By Jonn Elledge

On 18 August, YouGov released one of those polls that was shocking only in how accurately it reflected what we all already assumed. The poll, conducted on behalf of Sky News, found that 57 per cent of Tory members had already voted in the party’s leadership election, 68 per cent of them for Liz Truss. This meant that to have any chance of winning Rishi Sunak would need nearly three-quarters of the remaining votes to go his way. 

Alas, nearly half (44 per cent) of those who were yet to vote said they too would vote for Truss. And so – even though the race would not end for several more weeks – we could confidently say that the next prime minister of the United Kingdom would be Liz Truss.  

The reason this sticks in the memory is the way Sunak reacted. In an interview that day on the This Morning sofa, he seemed entirely unfazed by the polling. “I’m really excited to keep going,” he said, “I think my ideas are the right ones.” He had to say that, of course, but nonetheless the relaxed manner in which he conducted himself – not to mention his decision to show off by, bizarrely, reciting BBC One’s weekday afternoon schedule, circa 1991 – suggests that he really believed it. This was a man who assumed that the poll was wrong, or that there was a decent chance his opponent would implode. This was a man who still, genuinely, believed he would win. 

I am, on balance, quite in favour of Rishi Sunak winning. This is partly because, despite all his flaws as both a politician and a man, he is a less terrifying potential PM than the only other alternative, which is saying something. But it’s mostly because it would be really funny to see all the Tory MPs who cravenly backed Truss doing the required reverse ferret. And yet, every shred of evidence we have suggests that Sunak is about to get his backside handed to him. His continued confidence should be baffling. 

Except, of course, this is a man who has won at everything he has ever done, and so it isn’t baffling at all. Sunak attended Winchester College, the sort of prestigious public school from which boys emerge convinced they can and should run the world. From there he went on to Oxford, where he took PPE, graduating with a first; then to Stanford, where he was a Fulbright scholar, and received an MBA. There he also met his future wife, Akshata Murty, whose father was a billionaire, but Sunak didn’t let that put him off making his own way in the world: he went on to Goldman Sachs, then a hedge fund, then another hedge fund.  

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[See also: Why Rishi Sunak failed]

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And then, a few days before his 35th birthday, he was elected to parliament. At 37, he was a minister; at 39, chancellor, openly discussed as the next leader of his party and Britain’s first non-white prime minister. 

You can see the problem, I’m sure. Despite his attempts to hint otherwise, Sunak did not grow up within a million miles of the breadline – instead, he came from the sort of affluent middle-class background shared by millions of others, from which he has risen steadily to get within touching distance of the very top job in politics. Everything to which he has turned his hand, he has managed; every roll of the die has produced a six. As a man who has never known failure, of course he believes he will still grab victory from the jaws of defeat to become prime minister. How else is the story supposed to end? 

Something similar, I think, is going on in the head of the man Sunak still hopes to replace. You’d think, having alienated a majority of his colleagues and seen his approval rating first slide, then crash, then crater, Boris Johnson would understand he was done. Yet “friends” of the Prime Minister – apparently he still has some – have let it be known that he is happy to wait on the backbenches for everything to go wrong under his successor, when his ungrateful party will come crawling back. How public opinion fits into this is not entirely clear.  

Johnson, unlike Sunak, has known failure – witness both his departure from the 2016 leadership race and from the Foreign Office in 2018. But quite clearly, he has bounced back. So, as it happens, did some of his heroes before him. Winston Churchill bounced from senior roles in government to opposition and disgrace and back with the same frequency with which most of us might bounce between rooms while bored. Then there’s the great Marcus Tullius Cicero, who as consul in 63 BC became first man in Rome, and later on governed an eastern territory on behalf of the republic – but in between faced exile while his political enemies literally demolished his house. With those sorts of stories to feed on, of course Johnson cannot believe it is over. 

Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps, somehow, Sunak is, too: the Tory membership is a difficult group to poll, and pollsters have often got things wrong, albeit not quite that wrong. But the more likely possibility, surely, is that both men have reached the end of the road. Success in politics requires preternatural self-confidence to see you through the bad times, but all political careers must end in failure nonetheless. The tragedy for these men is that the qualities that carried them to those heights means they can’t see the fall ahead. 

[See also: Can the Tories kick their addiction to delusional thinking?]