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Can ‘moneybags’ Rishi Sunak beat ‘Iron Lady’ wannabe Liz Truss to be UK's next Prime Minister?

Former chancellor of the exchequer faces bruising battle for support of Conservative Party base who will have the final say in leadership run-off
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss
File picture

Paran Balakrishnan   |   Published 22.07.22, 01:42 PM

He’s the goody-goody former headboy of his public school and the perfect son-in-law.

She is the super-pushy, publicity-seeking foreign minister who posed for the press riding a tank and in a succession of flamboyant hats.

Now Rishi Sunak, Britain’s former chancellor of the exchequer, is going to go head-to-head with foreign minister Liz Truss for the job of Britain’s prime minister. 

While Sunak emerged as the favourite in balloting of Conservative MPs, he is facing an uphill fight for the hearts-and-minds of the 175,000 Conservative party members who have the final say. A YouGov poll puts Truss far out in front with a 24-point lead over Sunak among the Tory grassroots. But members’ opinions can be volatile and Sunak has six weeks of campaigning ahead to turn the tide in his favour with the winner to be declared September 5.

The first stage of the battle, fought over five hard-fought rounds, was to win the support of Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. Here, Sunak led all the way and finished with 137 MPs backing him. That was quite a commanding lead over Truss’ 113, which was enough to keep her ahead of third-place contender, the relative rookie Penny Mordaunt, who was one of the wild cards in the original eight-candidate contest.

The huge question mark now is: can Sunak overcome the handicap of being from a non-white ethnic minority and become the first British-Asian prime minister? Says crossbench peer Lord (Karan) Bilimoria, the brain behind the popular Cobra beer: “I predicted we would have an Asian as prime minister in my lifetime back in 2003.”

Changing race attitudes

Is Sunak the man who will fulfill Bilimoria’s vision? Sunak’s seamless rise in the world of British politics is a remarkable demonstration of how Britain’s attitude to race has changed. He entered parliament for the first time in 2016 and was quickly given junior ministerial jobs. He was catapulted to the top by Johnson who made him chancellor, the British equivalent of the finance minister here.  

The big black mark over Sunak among the Conservative rank-and-file who love Johnson is that he knifed the scandal-ridden prime minister “in the front,” as British newspapers put it, when he was at his weakest moment. 

Another that almost finished his political career is the fact that his billionaire wife, Akshata Murthy, the daughter of N. R. Narayanamurthy of Infosys, was – entirely legally – using tax havens to save on paying tax. This revelation played badly at a time when Sunak, as chancellor, was hiking taxes to pay for the country’s huge Covid-19 spending and it became known that Akshata was “richer than the Queen.” 

Of Prada shoes and expensive suits

There’s also the issue Sunak, mocked as “moneybags” by the tabloid Daily Mirror, is so rich that he’s out of touch with the day-to-day struggles of ordinary Britons – he was pictured leaving office in a POUND 3,500 suit and he wore Prada suede loafers on a visit last week to a building site. “Everyone needs to stop having a go at Rishi Sunak for wearing pound 500 Prada loafers to visit a building site. He just didn’t want to get his good shoes dirty,” joked one Twitter user.

By all indications, Sunak is popular in Westminster, and most senior columnists and political analysts appear to think highly of him. Says columnist and former Daily Telegraph editor, Charles Moore about Sunak: “He is a thoroughly respectable, pleasant, intelligent, well-educated person with nothing known against him except the problem of his wife’s non-dom status, a political but not an ethical error.” 

Tellingly, Moore called Sunak, “the establishment candidate”. The former Goldman Sachs investment banker, unsurprisingly, is also the favourite of the financial markets with traders saying a victory by the populist Truss would trigger losses in the already weak pound. Seniors batting for Sunak

Sunak’s popularity in Westminster is attested to by the fact that senior Conservative leaders have stepped up to the crease to bat for him. Sunak’s constituency, Richmond, in Yorkshire was earlier the parliamentary seat of former party leader William Hague who has no doubt that the British-Indian is the right man for the top job.

In an article in The Times, London Hague pointed out significantly that the famously dour Yorkshiremen and women of the constituency wanted a white Yorkshire-roots candidate. Instead, they got Sunak who was born in Southampton but who charmed his way forward and won the seat for the constituency where less than three per cent of voters were non-white. He held the seat against other independents and the far-right Ukip who thought he might be easy prey. “They were all routed by Sunak, who turned out to be a highly energetic, bright, emotionally intelligent candidate,” recalled Hague.

The Daily Mail, on a different note, Wednesday called him the “Maharaja of the (Yorkshire) Dales,” a reference to his family wealth and, of course, his Indian background.

'Blue rinse' brigade

The crucial question now is: can Sunak persuade the Tory card-carrying members whose average age is 57 to choose him and not Truss who Conservative activists have voted their favourite repeatedly? Will the older men and the ‘blue rinse’ brigade (as older Conservative women are still derisively called even though they’ve abandoned their blue-tinted hair-colour) vote to choose an Asian-origin prime minister?

Truss, who turns 47 next week, is diametrically opposite from Sunak and she’s a bundle of contradictions. She’s the daughter of liberal-leaning parents who took her on Ban-the-Bomb anti-nuclear marches during her childhood. During her time in university, she was a member of the Liberal Democrats. There are even videos of a youthful Truss attacking the monarchy at a Liberal Democrat gathering. 

Her switch to the Tory Party came later in life, though she tries to gloss over her past now. In 2016 she leapt into the fray as a diehard anti-Brexit supporter of then Prime Minister David Cameron. By the looks of it, she switched sides when Brexit became the flavour of the week in the Conservative Party. Now she styles herself as the true-blue, heir to Margaret Thatcher candidate. Sunak is expected to hammer away at the inconsistencies of her past. Nevertheless, she has always been quick to catch the party’s mood and is therefore, the darling of many members.

Political light-weight

This is despite the fact she comes across as extremely wooden, even robotic at public meetings. She had to admit during one candidates’ debate that she wasn’t a good speaker. In one moment that went viral on social media, the gaffe-prone Truss ‘got lost’ trying to leave the room after her opening leadership bid speech. She likes to channel Thatcher in her dress style, favouring the pussy-bow blouses that the Iron Lady wore. Critics call Truss a political light-weight and an “ideologue without ideas” and her famous blank look is known in Tory circles as “the stare.” Can Sunak win over Conservative members around the country? A YouGov poll earlier this week suggested he would lose against almost any white candidate he might have stood against in the finals.

Of course, that partly could be because he’s clearly non-white. But it could also be because he hiked taxes in the midst of a massive cost-of-living crisis when inflation and soaring energy costs have been sending Britons’ household bills sky high and so far during the campaign, has not made any promises to slash them, declaring “nothing comes for free.” 

By contrast, Truss argues that a hell-bent-for-leather charge for growth is essential for Britain’s economy and is promising to cut taxes “from day one” to do it. Truss, who’s styling herself as the Boris “continuity candidate,” is willing to finance the growth drive by taking on debt that would have to be paid back over generations.

A difficult dilemma

This will present the Conservative grassroots with a difficult dilemma in making the final decision. The rank-and-file traditionally love low taxes but then again, they also detest racking up government debt.

Sunak, 42, has fired broadsides at Truss on this, saying that tax cuts are irresponsible when Britain's public finances are so humongously in the red.

Johnson, who blames his “traitorous” ex-chancellor for his ouster, told supporters he wanted anyone but Sunak to succeed him. 

It was rumoured in Westminster that Sunak preferred to face Truss rather than Mordaunt in the final battle. The thinking was that Truss had too many loose ends in her career and holes in her platform and that would make her an easy target for Sunak. This could turn out to have been a miscalculation.

Now the two are facing each other, the fight is about to erupt explosively. Can the Winchester College public school-educated British Asian triumph over Truss? It will be quite a battle. 

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