Submitted by George Callaghan…
Within a year Rishi Sunak will be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Sunak is currently the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister). He is the only cabinet minister to emerge from the coronavirus debacle with his reputation enhanced. Dishy Rishi is hailed as the saviour of restaurants and the licensed trade.
Boris Johnson is on the ropes. For decades he had hankered after the prime ministership. In 2019 he finally ascended the greasy poll. After a thumping election victory it all went wrong in record time. Bo Jo’s honeymoon disappeared within three months. Along came coronavirus. Johnson mishandled it spectacularly. The bumbling act disguises really bumbling and bungling. Boris’s lassitude, incompetence, inattention to detail and disdain for expertise has hugely exacerbated the coronavirus pandemic in the United Kingdom. The economic fallout has been greatly aggravated by Boris’ malapertness. Boris’ so called ‘oven ready’ trade deal with the EU is anything but. Both the EU and the UK are guilty of obduracy. Boris has proposed the Internal Market Bill. This would be a flagrant violation of international law. Already Bo Jo is facing a major rebellion on his own backbenches. Boris’ authority is leeching away. He faces a formidable Leader of the Opposition. Sir Keir Starmer has a razor-sharp QC mind. Boris cannot lay a glove on the Labour leader. All of a sudden Bo Jo’s Oxford Union antics will not cut it anymore. Boris is a clown. At a time like this there is a little to laugh about. The joke has well and truly worn off.
The Prime Minister is engaged. His 30 something fiancée has brought forth Boris’ sixth child. Boris caught coronavirus through his own refusal to follow basic health guidelines. He survived but the health impact is likely to be lifelong. Boris faces an awful situation on all fronts. The economy, Brexit, the Union, coronavirus, education – it is an omnishambles. It is nightmare on Downing Street.
Bo Jo is not so cocksure anymore. As Labour pulls ahead in the polls so Bo Jo must cast his mind forward to November 2024. That will be the next dissolution of Parliament. As Britain underwent three elections in four years no one wants another early election. The horizon is full of gathering storm clouds. These were mostly authored by Boris himself. Does A B de P Johnson really want to go down in history as the one who led the Tory Party to its worst drubbing since John Major?
There is an alternative open to BoJo. As a classical scholar who could decide that falling on his sword is the most honourable course. Like Cameron in 2016 he may reason ‘fuck this for a game of soldiers.’ He had conquered his Mount Everest. Why not jack it in? He can do something far less stressful and more remunerative. The showman can jet around the world orating for telephone number fees.
If Boris were to resign or be booted out by his own increasingly mutinous party then it create a job vacancy at Number Ten. Who would be apt to fill this office?
The 40 year old Rishi was born in Hampshire, UK. The son of a couple of middle class Indian immigrants he grew up in a family without much wealth and without any elite connections. Rishi’s academic promise shone early. He won a scholarship to Winchester College: one of the most estimable schools in the Commonwealth. Founded in 1382 this all male academic hothouse has a motor ‘Manners Makyth the Man’. The founder was a bishop named William of Wykeham. Due to the founder’s name the schoolboys are called Wykehamists.
Winchester has a reputation for producing serious minded, unshowy sorts. They are civil servants, City solicitors and scientists. The school has all the virtues of Eton but without its stratospheric conceit. No front-rank politician has attended it since the days of Geoffrey Howe. Though 58 years older than Eton the school had produced one PM to Eton’s 20. Henry Addington is the only Wykehamist to have been First Lord of the Treasury. Addington was distinguished by being undistinguished. As some Regency doggerel put it ‘Pitt is to Addington as London is to Paddington.’
Rishi showed the quiet determination so characteristic of his school. He rose to be headboy. He then won a place to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford. PPE is de rigeur for politicians of his generation. Rishi went up to Lincoln College, Oxford in 1998. This small and unpretentious though ancient college suited him to a tee. Rishi avoided the Conservative Association like the plague. He never showed his face in student politics. He put his head down and studied like a demon. His efforts were crowned with a double first. That is the equivalent of summa cum laude in the American system.
After varsity Rishi joined a bank. His ferocious work ethic had him earning millions by the time he was 30. He took a two-year career break to collect an MBA in the United States. He also bagged an Indian billionaire’s daughter there. The newlyweds were soon blessed with a brace of children.
Shortly after he turned 30 this frighteningly successful young man turned his hand to politics. He had netted a fortune. He was able to retire and devote himself entirely to his ambition of entering Parliament.
Debonair, good looking, suave, affable, genuine, circumspect and diligent: Sunak seems to have all the attributes of a consummate politician. Mr Sunak has placidity and poise. Try as they might the reptiles of Fleet Street cannot find any dirt on Rishi. There are no skeletons in his cupboard. At Oxford he was known to abstain from drug use. He seldom drinks and he keeps fit.
Ere long he was selected for a safe Conservative constituency: Richmond in Yorkshire. William Hague – the former Tory leader – was standing down from the House of Commons. Hague had held Richmond even in 1997: annus horribilis for the Conservative and Unionist Party. Even a donkey could win there so long as he wore the blue rosette. Sunak is no donkey.
The Sunaks purchased a stately home in North Yorkshire. People dubbed him the Maharajah of Yorkshire for the princely style in which this British Indian lived. One of the few criticisms made of him is that he is perhaps a trifle to flash with his cash.
Frankly, Mr Sunak’s ethnicity helps him. The UK is 20% non-white and only due to become more so. 40% of babies born in the United Kingdom are non-white. With the browning of Britain; it is only right that an ethnic minority person become PM at some point.
The Conservative Party is not doing well among ethnic minorities. Labour polls much more strongly among ethnic minority communities. As the ethnic minority % of the populace will grow and grow it means that Labour will have an ever-increasing advantage. The Conservatives need to arrest this trend and fast. Therefore, it behoves the Tory Party to prove its anti-racialist credentials. Two of the three great offices of state are already filled by ethnic minority people.
Rishi Sunak is a safe pair of hands if ever there was one. He is an effectual but not a dazzling orator. BoJo’s mirth can make Parliament rock with laughter. But the country needs a PM not a standup comedian.
With the coronavirus economic catastrophe Sunak has had to take some bold measures. The UK economy had contracted by an eye watering 20%. Sunak has thrown money at the problem. Keynsianism has mitigated the calamity not prevented it. But even Sunak said he could not save every job or every business. There is already carping on the Tory backbenches. Has Sunak been profligate? How is this debt ever going to be repaid? Raising tax on the affluent goes against the grain for a Conservative. Slashing public services would be an electoral disaster. There are simply no good options. It is a matter of picking these least calamitous.
Sunak pursues a hard-headed, pragmatic and problem-solving approach to politics. Not for him the operatics of Bo Jo or quixotic ideas like CANZUK. Other Tory MPs might chase rainbows. The banker in Sunak looks for the sweet spot: maximum gain at minimum risk. That is not an easy balance to strike. Considering the hospital pass of a situation he inherited Sunak has performed admirably. He has won acclaim from the financial press corps. It has been a bravura year as chancellor.
Supposing Bo Jo tenders his resignation to Her Britannic Majesty who else would throw his or her hat into the ring? The other contenders would be Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove and no doubt Jeremy Hunt.
Gove is a silthy tove. He may well have had his day. The oleaginous Aberdonian has no following in the party.
Dominic Raab has kudos for the way he has handled his incredibly difficult brief. He is about the right age and is scandal-free. He is on the bland side but then so is Sunak.
Priti Patel has ballsed up her portfolios. She has resigned once in disgrace. The sky is full of chickens coming home to roost for her. As the only female contender her vote share will not be derisory. That would be bad optics.
Hunt is a rider not a runner. He has maintained a canny silence on contentious issues for a while. That is precisely because he is biding his time. The admiral’s son wants another bite of the cherry. Hunt seems competent but cannot even remember his wife’s nationality. Some Tories say that he is a security risk because his wife is a Chinawoman.
Sunak remains the most likely winner. As Harold Wilson said a week is a long time in politics. Hunt or Raab could yet some out on top. Sunak is young enough to have easily another two decades in front line politics. If he does not win the leadership this time then there is always next time.
Would Sunak even want the leadership now? It may seem like a poisoned chalice. Better to let Hunt or Raab win it in 2021 and they can lead the Tory Party to defeat in 2024. Then Sunak can pick up the leadership and lead the party back to government.
But opportunity knocks. It might not knock again. The Tories have won four elections on the trot. A fifth consecutive electoral victory is unprecedented. But there is always a first time. If Sunak does not seek the leadership in 2021 he leaves it to Hunt or Raab. There is a chance that the alternative Tory PM could pull a rabbit out of the hat and win in 2024. Sunak’s moment might have passed without him ever making a grab for the big prize.
In 2024 it is hard to see how Labour could win outright. They have a mere 130 and some odd seats. They need 326 to form a majority. Winning almost 190 seats in a single election is a tall order indeed. However, it might yet happen. The Conservatives have a grim task ahead of the. In all areas of policy the government is struggling. People are not afraid of Sir Keir Starmer. He had a distinguished record in public service even before he entered the political arena. It is hard for the Tory propaganda machine to depict a knight as a revolutionary. Labour is no longer mutinous. It cannot be portrayed as loony left. After 14 years of government many people will be sick of Conservatism.
If Labour does not win outright it will need to seek an arrangement with another party. Forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats is the most blatant solution. The Lib Dems have a measly 11 seats. This minnow of a party could easily have 20 seats next time. But what is their pitch? They stood as absolute Remainers in 2019. It failed miserably. They cannot pose as equidistant between the Conservatives and Labour now. Labour is quite moderate. The Lib Dems have run out of ideas. Sir Ed Davey is amiable forgettable. He has age and experience but not gravitas. The Lib Dems garner precious little media coverage.
Would the Lib Dems even want to go into coalition. Remember last time they tried that? Many Lib Dems opposed it. The Lib Dems lost two-thirds of their vote share. They achieved little in terms of policy. They have still not recovered from 2010. If having propped up the Tories they prop up Labour they will seem like complete tarts. However, Lib Dems then to loathe Labour less than they do the Tories. The Lib Dems might demand and receive a second referendum on alternative vote.
The SNP is the only other possible party to assist Labour. They could offer confidence and supply. They would not want to be in a coalition since they dislike the very idea of the UK Government. But the Scottish National Party’s price would be another referendum on separation. Labour does not wish to sunder the Union any more than the Conservatives do. This is not entirely altruistic. Labour used to gain dozens of seats in North Britain. Labour is feeble north of Hadrian’s Wall now. But what goes up must come down. One day the SNP’s popularity will fall. It could be in 20 years. But if Labour regains its former standing in Scotland then that is a game changer. The Tories were extinct as a parliamentary party in Caledonia for several years. Now the Tory Party is a force to be reckoned with there.
The DUP will have 10 seats to offer at most. Many in Labour consider them toxic. Labour held some behind the scenes talks with the DUP in 2010 with a view to confidence and supply. It came to nothing.
It is time to think the unthinkable. If in 2024 there is a serious chance that the SNP could be kingmaker then it would be time for Labour and the Conservatives to sink their differences. Could the two not work together? It would be a Labour Government with Conservatives as a junior partner or perhaps outside the government offering confidence and supply. The Tories and Lib Dems had a coalition and were still able to stand against each other at the next election. For the good of the nation and to keep the UK intact such a solution must not be ruled out. It might be the only way to maintain the Union.
In the Republic of Ireland our two major parties formed a coalition. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael had been opponents for almost a century. They both grew out of Sinn Fein. After almost 100 years of separation the two parties chose to work together ironically enough to oppose: Sinn Fein! If they can do it so can the UK’s two parties of state. The Irish parties have even contemplated a merger. In Northern Ireland the DUP and Sinn Fein have worked together. They were not just polls apart in the 1990s. They were at each other’s throats: almost literally.
A Labour-Tory coalition would be the peace of the brave. Could they find the maturity and wisdom to make it work? If so it would need a man as decent as Sunak to lead his party.
Some in Labour find the Tories vile. As Nye Bevan said, ‘they are lower than vermin. I have a deep burning hatred of the Tory Party.’ The Labour rank and file might not wear such an agreement. If there were a deal with the Tories then some Labour people would resign in disgust and join the Lib Dems or even a far left party.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.