Rishi Sunak is not having a good time. And it’s not just because he’s losing. It’s because, in general, he’s just not very good at it. And by “it”, I mean the human bit of politics, the part where he connects with people as something other than economic units. His campaign of him, if polling is to be believed, is soon to come to an unsuccessful end. Lowlights include multiple moments in which Sunak attempted to be a man of the people: failing to pay for fuel, failing to name a real McDonald’s breakfast item, joking about his “tan”, and a campaign video (with a Ray Winstone-meets-Danny Dyer voiceover hailing Sunak as the underdog of some kind of action film) so removed from the grave moment the country finds itself in that it verges on sociopathic.
It’s all now a far cry from the boy wonder, the Sunak the BBC portrayed in a Superman outfit (an image so craven that the corporation was forced to remove it), the Sunak as prime minister-in-waiting, who emerged mid-pandemic with buckets of cash and a furlough scheme. Sunak materialized at a moment when large numbers of people, both conservative and liberal, were so desperate for a grown up they were happy with someone who merely appeared to be one, no matter what his politics. To some, I have promised the end of the wild Brexit years of reckless bluster; he was the pilot who was going to land the plane safely. He was “dishy Rishi” who presented, despite his very rightwing politics, as not too Tory, a little bit Blair and a whole lot of brown. That last fact – that he seemed to have the potential to be the first prime minister who was also a person of color – sprinkled even more stardust on him.
And then Sunak nosedived. Barring a miracle, his prime ministerial bid is soon to be history. And so a moment, please, before the Truss era is upon us, for a Sunak pre-mortem, if you will. The epitaph: finance bro fails to seal the deal.
So what happened? Simply, Sunak’s fetishised qualities were entirely limited to presentation and lacked any moral core. The leadership campaign has been run like a company takeover bid, the pitch to Tory voters like that of a junior associate finding himself unexpectedly in a position to vie for partner, out of his depth of him, defaulting to earnest cliches about his biggest weakness of he being that he’s just “too much of a perfectionist”. It is the sensibility of a man trying to pull off the biggest trade of his life from him if only he can get past some, shall we say, unreasonable shareholders. Let’s tell them what they want to hear, he thinks. Of course, he reassures them, the family name will remain, and we will certainly make sure that the identity of the firm is not diluted. The balance sheet is a mess; he struggles to lie about that, but he can have a good stab at posturing about everything else.
This is why his statements about protecting “our women”, criticisms of “leftwing agitators”, “woke nonsense” and “bulldozing our history” never seem to quite land. They are slides he was told he needed to add to the deck. And that is exactly what Sunak has really been all along – not a competent technocrat doing his best in a chaotic Johnson government, but a man both propelled by, and then in the final hour utterly exposed by, his willingness to say whatever the deal team needs to say to fend off the competition.
The episodes that truly define the kind of politician Sunak is were not the moments when he appeared authoritative and in touch (when in fact all he was doing was reading from an Autocue in a well-cut suit, making rudimentary noises about the hard time the nation was going through). It was when he was first off the blocks to defend Dominic Cummings’ flagrant breach of lockdown rules, when he accused those who called him to account for his actions, the members of a nation that was grieving, shut in their houses, asking for answers, of “trying to score political points”. It was when he backed Johnson over partygate, or now, as he tries to reposition himself as a heroic lockdown skeptic.
His switching between projecting smooth, principled competence and then sharp menace reminds me of a line from the film Margin Call, when Jeremy Irons’s character reveals how to survive a career in buccaneering high finance: “There are three ways to make a living in this business : be first, be smarter, or cheat.” Alas, none have worked for Sunak.
Perhaps Sunak represents a larger failure of the “modern non-ideological conservative,” as William Hague – the man whose safe seat Sunak was parachuted into after a career as a partner in a hedge fund – once described him. Sunak is an ideologue, but only in the sense that he sees politics as merely another branch of finance, rather than the other way round. He has no philosophy, bar the Thatcherite echo that he manifests in a managerial kind of bloodlessness, in his belief that helping to manage the books of his family’s pharmacy accounts as a heroic political origin story.
And in a way, that overemphasis on finance is the catch-22 for brown members of the Conservative party. The route to power for people of color on the right such as Nadhim Zahawi, Sajid Javid and Sunak is commonly through finance and business; by the time they reach Westminster they are already integrated into the elite, their political prospects as minorities de-risked through the enormous wealth they have accumulated. They bring with them a culturally cosmopolitan bearing that is at odds with the appetites of Tory members, who like their wealth old and preferably with a touch of title in the family line – not the new, nerdy, Californian, MBA sort. Not the kind that John le Carré once described, when writing of the slick new CIA tribe, as those who have an “open plan charm” that makes you “sweat at the joints”. Reports from Sunak’s own team are that he was sunk in early August when, asked a question about what career he would choose as a young graduate, he replied by fawning over the “inspiring and empowering culture of enterprise” on the west coast of America. It was the third time in the space of 10 minutes that he had mentioned California; the event was in Eastbourne.
Nevertheless, history will probably be kind to Sunak, as someone whose rejection signals a self-destructive Conservative party set on its course to indulge fantasy over fact. But his brief popularity of him shows that others are willing to make an equally squalid settlement: to celebrate someone with no demonstrable interest in or compassion for people, but who can at least manage their nation’s decline.
Sunak may have a second act in him, but in the meantime he departs only in disgrace, knowing that it was all for nothing. The deal will almost certainly go to the other bidder, who did less work and was less smart but took the shareholders down the pub and made them laugh. Farewell for now, Sunak. We hardly knew ye – and then, suddenly, we knew ye all too well.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism