Rishi Sunak, the clear favourite of Tory MPs to be their next leader, no longer needs to convince his parliamentary colleagues that he deserves the keys to No 10. Since the toxic race to replace Boris Johnson began, MPs fearful that the cost-of-living crisis will doom the party, after 12 years in power, have flocked to the former chancellor in the hope that he will prove to be the safe choice. But the slick Brexiteer’s next battle is by far his hardest: persuading Tory members that he is in fact still a Conservative.
Sunak used his time at the Treasury to raise the UK tax burden to a 70-year high. He hiked National Insurance to pay for NHS backlogs, pulled 2.5 million people into higher income tax rates and vowed to raise corporation tax from 19 per cent to 25 per cent. These actions are anathema to the 150,000-plus grassroots Tories who will decide the UK’s next prime minister.
With Johnson’s allies branding Sunak a “snake” and every rival promising immediate tax cuts, the former chancellor is cornered and cannot risk further “blue-on-blue” attacks by disowning his record or shifting the blame.
During tonight’s ITV Tory leadership debate, however, he showed he can still pursue a path to victory. He attacked Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt – one of whom is almost certain to join him in the final round – for “fantasy economics” over their plans to slash taxes and borrow more, declaring that “even Jeremy Corbyn didn’t go that far” in “putting our bills on a credit card”.
“If we’re not for sound money, what is the point of the Conservative Party? It’s the most Conservative of Conservative values,” he emphasised, hoping the Tory faithful will hear him.
If Sunak can succeed in aligning his tax rises with traditional Tory fiscal responsibility – “this something-for-nothing economics isn’t Conservative, it’s socialism” – during a summer of hustings then he may stand a chance of clearing the final hurdle. But tonight also showed the other hopefuls will hit back, and hard. Truss, the Foreign Secretary, cut a nervous figure amid claims her previous support for Remain is damaging her campaign.
But she made clear she opposed the National Insurance rise during cabinet debates, accusing the former chancellor of choking growth. Mordaunt was also merciless in her attacks on Sunak, declaring: “If he has this great plan for growth, why didn’t we see it during his last two years at the Treasury?”
The two candidates vying for second place also took potshots at Sunak’s carefully managed image, with Truss admitting she “might not be the slickest presenter on this stage… but when I say I’ll do something I do it”; Mordaunt pointedly said that her bungled launch video did not feature her, but focused on the party and the country.
What Sunak lacks is more credibility on the right. But if reports are to be believed, the insurgent Kemi Badenoch – the lesser-known candidate who has shown a willingness to wade into the culture wars – could yet endorse him if, as expected, she is defeated. Apart from a relatively gentle challenge over Covid loan fraud, Badenoch, and indeed the outsider Tom Tugendhat, went easy on Sunak, suggesting that they could lend him support, and in turn isolate his rivals, in the fractious contest’s remaining stages.
Given that Sunak visibly squirmed while asking Truss what she “regretted most”, being a Liberal Democrat as a student or a Remainer in 2016, it may be that he does not have the stomach for the fight ahead. The contest is still wide open at this stage, with tonight’s debate producing no clear winner.
Tomorrow (18 July), Tory MPs will vote in the third round to eliminate another candidate and then again on Tuesday, after which just three will be left in the race. The furious exchanges – a Labour source described the debate as “a generous gift” for Keir Starmer – made one thing clear: whoever wins will inherit a fearful party deeply divided about what lies ahead.
[See also: Who won the first Tory leadership TV debate?]