With Liz Truss all but named prime minister, the Westminster hive mind has turned its attention to who will be in her first cabinet.
Who’s in and who’s out? Convention dictates that the victor in a party leadership contest offers their vanquished rival a senior job to try to unite the party. Rishi Sunak has already knocked back such a proposal, saying cabinet ministers “really need to agree with the big things” – with the obvious implication that the differences between him and Truss are just too fundamental to resolve.
It’s doubtful the Foreign Secretary will have lost any sleep over this – because she already has a job for Sunak. He will be the villain, and it’s a role he will be filling whether he accepts it or not.
The new prime minister will have a monster of an in-tray, with the cost-of-living crisis, widespread strikes, the continued challenge of making Brexit work and the NHS on the brink all requiring the government’s immediate attention. Truss’s proposed programme of tax cuts, more borrowing and tearing up the Bank of England’s mandate has been criticised by Sunak as “fantasy economics”. But no matter, for when these plans collide with reality, Sunak and his “Treasury orthodoxy” will be to blame. If the economy goes into recession, as is expected, it is easy to see how Truss’s outriders, who have already begun to claim that pandemic lockdowns were the source of all the UK’s current ills, will turn on Sunak and try to cast his furlough scheme as part of the problem.
It is not possible for Truss, having surrounded herself with his allies, to blame Boris Johnson. If humiliated, the outgoing Prime Minister would be a bigger threat to her on the backbenches than even her arch nemesis Michael Gove.
[See also: Rishi Sunak’s next move]
And if the Conservatives’ hoped-for bounce in the polls in the wake of Johnson’s exit fails to materialise Sunak will be in the frame again. Nadine Dorries’s despicable tweet casting the former chancellor as Brutus the back-stabber for resigning from Johnson’s cabinet and helping to precipitate his fall made sure of that. That Johnson’s chaotic government was up to its eyes in sleaze, and that Sunak was among a tidal wave of frontbenchers who concluded they could no longer serve, will be ignored.
How Sunak responds will tell us what kind of politician he really is. The campaigns of both would-be leaders have been carefully choreographed, peppered with strikingly vicious attacks. And yet the contest could be a mere skirmish compared to what may be to come.
Will Sunak fight fire with fire? How many of his acolytes would stand by him if he does? He began the leadership contest supported by a majority of Tory MPs, but that many have jumped ship would suggest few have the stomach for more conflict within the party, especially given there is a general election on the horizon. Truss may also try to cut Sunak off from his closest allies by offering them frontbench roles. It would be the easiest option for her.
The margin of Truss’s victory with Tory members matters. If her share of the vote far exceeds 60 per cent, MPs will make a calculation about their associations and file in behind the new leader. If it’s closer to 55 per cent, maybe not so much.
The big question is does Sunak, who is just 42, think he has another shot? If not, a lucrative career in the private sector, far away from the cut and thrust of British politics, may beckon.
If he does fancy his chances his first task is to avoid being cast as Truss’s scapegoat. The story rarely ends well for the goat.
[See also: Why Liz Truss will fail]