Downing the Bring Your Own Street Booze party in May 2020 has rekindled the despair over Boris Johnson’s leadership that the remaining conservative optimists hoped would fade over winter break. Now, however, the fire has revived with force. Johnson’s apology to the Commons does not resolve this in any way.
The apology simply confirms what was already clear: a staggeringly insensitive violation was committed at the height of the first shutdown. This abandonment not only featured Johnson as a participant: it was marked by his own character. His apology, with his continuing claim to a labor fact within the rules, lacks moral value or political credibility.
Conservative MPs are well aware that their leader is an unreliable risk-taker. Some of them actively admire this. Others are happy to benefit from it. Many loathe it while quietly despising themselves for allowing it. But the style works only as long as it is successful. Most conservatives had put Johnson on probation after his spectacularly disastrous December. The new explosion this week means that they are now looking for alternatives more urgently than before.
Conservative MPs are on the threshold of a leadership change. Sue Gray’s report will be important in shaping the timing of the outcome, but her findings could be a total loss to Johnson either way. If Gray blames the prime minister, he will fight not to be knocked down outright. If she somehow lets him go, her authority won’t suddenly be restored. Conservative MPs have all the cards.
All of which explains why the party is moving toward its third leadership election in six years. Johnson’s experiment seems to have almost come to an end. It is a remarkable turn of events that members of the Tory party, demographically so profoundly unrepresentative of modern Britain, must again be asked to elect the prime minister. Johnson was the first prime minister elected in this way, and it has been a terrible precedent.
Much should be written now about the candidates already quietly vying for leadership. There they were, lined up with Johnson along the front bench as he tried to eat a humble pie in the face of questions from the prime minister: Liz Truss, Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, and Michael Gove. They all have hopes of climbing to the top of the greasy pole when Johnson falls, as he surely will now.
However, the key figure is the man who, rather conspicuously, was not there at all – Rishi Sunak is the one to win in this contest. Although it came just behind Truss in a recent ConservativeHome poll of party members, he was ahead of her on this week’s Sky / YouGov poll Crucially, according to the Observer / Opinium poll over Christmas, the Tories would fare much better in a general election than Johnson or Truss. That finding will play a huge role in your favor among parliamentarians.
It must be said that Sunak’s ascension would be remarkable. He would be the first person of Asian descent and the first person of color to become prime minister and to lead a major British political party. That would be another display, if necessary, of the Tory party’s immense ability to adapt to social and cultural change. Other parties can only stare with frustrated envy.
But there is much more to Sunak’s success, if it happens, than this. On my shelves is a copy of historian Robert Blake’s biography of former Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law. With neat historical symmetry, Bonar Law emerged to become the Tory leader 100 years ago: The Conservative Committee of 1922 got its name from the machinations that toppled David Lloyd George and brought Bonar Law to Downing Street. But what matters is the title of Blake’s book. It’s called The Unknown Prime Minister.
It is a title that will soon have to be used again. Sunak may not have ascended without a trace, but his ascent has been unusually rapid. He only entered the House of Commons in 2015, succeeding William Hague as MP for Richmond in North Yorkshire. He has only been minister since 2018. He then quickly climbed the ministerial ladder after Johnson personally selected him (with some support from Dominic Cummings) to succeed Javid as chancellor less than two years ago.
Although Sunak has been chancellor during the greatest peacetime crisis of the modern era, he is extremely inexperienced. This is something that every Tory MP I contacted for this article commented on. “The honest answer is that we really don’t know if it cuts it off,” said a former cabinet minister. Others fear that Sunak, who is exceptionally wealthy, is operating inside his own bubble and is too close to Dominic Cummings, who wishes to destabilize Johnson.
This is particularly important because Sunak’s popularity, which was very high when he was handing out public money to support the economy during the early phases of Covid, appears to be declining. The return of inflation, the imminence of the tax hikes he announced in the fall budget, and the expected big hike in energy rates from April all combine to make Sunak a less voter-friendly minister these days.
For the most part, Sunak has agreed with Johnson’s willingness to spend. But the loans and taxes that have marked his chancery are not popular across the party. A significant minority of Conservative MPs remain avid disciples of the small state, low taxes, and Margaret Thatcher-era privatization. Most of what Sunak has said since entering politics, not to mention his own wealth, suggests that he is also broadly sympathetic to this approach.
We’ve probably all been in a position a bit like the Tory party is in. Something explodes with your car. You get a budget done in the garage, and the cost of repairs seems staggering. Do you keep going, throwing good money after bad? Or are you beginning to think that it would be better to get a new, more reliable vehicle?
The answer is not to be dazzled by the brochures and to think before you buy. Johnson’s impending failure may be largely due to his own fault, but its consequences will be felt throughout the Tory party and beyond. The electoral coalition that Johnson created in 2019 may not survive his downfall. Sunak and Truss, the seeming favorites for success, would have a hard time maintaining the kind of appeal Johnson achieved.
The Tory party must not fool themselves about Sunak. Choosing him would be an act based on hope rather than experience. Given that this is what the party also did by electing Johnson, it is something they should be especially careful about.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism