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2 August

Rishi Sunak’s rightwards dash has destroyed what reputation he had left

The former chancellor could have fought an honourable campaign. Instead he’s led an illiberal arms race.

By Jonn Elledge

It sometimes feels like Rishi Sunak must be the unluckiest man in British politics. An instinctive small-state Conservative, he was forced, by the coronavirus pandemic, to be the chancellor who handed out money on an unprecedented scale. He describes himself as a tax cutter, yet – entirely against his will! – he found himself introducing what other Tories like to describe as “the highest tax burden in 70 years”. Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact he has more money than God you could almost start to feel sorry for him.

And now poor, helpless Rishi has found himself doing the exact opposite of what he always wanted to yet again. He’s socially liberal and his pitch to be leader of the Conservative Party was basically that he was the moderate, sensible one. Unfortunately it turns out that the Tory members don’t want either of those things, so he’s trying again, and is rebranding himself as the panderer-in-chief.

So, in the last couple of weeks, he’s promised to ban all construction on the green belt. This is certainly a bold pitch for a man who’s building his own private swimming pool in the middle of a housing crisis, but it fits with the prejudices of the Tory membership, so out it came. It also, helpfully enough, gave him a segue to the next section of his stump speech, which concerned the ill-defined modern evil of wokery. “What’s the point in stopping the bulldozers in the green belt,” Sunak asked, “if we allow left-wing agitators to take a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values?” Alan Partridge would be proud.

Perhaps the area where the illiberal arms race dynamic in Sunak’s campaign is most visible, though, is immigration policy. Since the leadership contest warmed up, he’s vowed to double the number of foreign criminals Britain deports. He’s said that “no option is off the table” to stop migrants crossing the Channel, and has promised to make the government’s proposals to deport refugees to Rwanda work. He’s also said that the number of refugees the UK accepts should be “determined by need”, which seems to misunderstand something fairly fundamental about the concept of refugees.

You hardly need to be Machiavelli to parse all this: Sunak is losing to Liz Truss, who is backed by Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and while we don’t know much about the Tory membership it’s hardly a huge stretch to imagine them to have a greater appetite for right-wing culture war nonsense than the electorate at large. 

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There’s an outside chance Sunak’s tactic will even work: a poll published on Monday by the Italian company Techne suggested he was just five percentage points behind Truss and, to be fair, if he wins after the likes of Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat backed Truss in the hope of preferment that would be very funny. Even if he does, though, this strategy of attacking foreigners and young people can’t be doing much for his chances of winning a general election. And if he doesn’t win the leadership – because of his performance at the Treasury; because, in times of trouble, the Tory membership always opt for Thatcher cosplayers – he’ll have ruined his reputation forever. Sunak could have chosen to lose with honour and dignity. Now, we know he has neither.

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[See also: Can “Trussonomics” work?]