Prepare for Javid vs Sunak in the next Tory leadership contest

11 July 2020

4:45 PM

11 July 2020

4:45 PM

In 1992 a young footballer named Dion Dublin left my local team, Cambridge United, to take up one of the most coveted jobs in football – centre-forward at Manchester United. After a promising first few outings, disaster struck when he suffered a broken leg. By the time he was restored to fitness a genius named Eric Cantona had been signed and was strutting his stuff up front. Being a good lad, young Dion took it well enough. But it was basically game over for him at Old Trafford.

As Sajid Javid rose from the Commons back benches this week to ask Chancellor Rishi Sunak a question about his summer economic statement, I could not help but be reminded of Dion and Eric.

Sunak had just given yet another breathtakingly fluent, pitch-perfect performance. And while Javid was gracious enough in his tone and Sunak properly respectful in reply, there was no getting away from the fact that Javid, less than a year ago, had been appointed Chancellor by Boris. Or that he resigned from the post just six months ago after a squabble with the PM over plans to combine their advisers into a joint team.

In doing so, Javid not only became the answer to the future pub quiz question ‘Who is the only Chancellor in modern times never to deliver a Budget statement?’ but also unwittingly launched Sunak into the political stratosphere.

For such a career-orientated person – don’t forget that Javid was the eurosceptic who campaigned for Remain to keep in David Cameron’s good books – the knowledge that he jumped off the ladder one rung from the top must be hard to bear. But let’s not write him off just yet. Because for all his apparent bonhomie with the wunderkind Sunak, Javid has doggedly decided to offer something different to the Tory team.

Whereas Sunak boasted about being ‘unencumbered by dogma’, Javid is an avowed Thatcherite, described by his friend and former adviser Tim Montgomerie as ‘the first of Thatcher’s children’ to make it into a big Cabinet job.

And in these days of public spending splurges and vast deficits, he has decided to pick up the torch of sound money and fiscal Conservatism. Not for the first time, he was seen to mark young Sunak’s card in the Commons, telling his successor at the Treasury: ‘Interest rates will not stay low forever and eventually we will need to bring back our national debt under control.’

Naturally, Sunak readily agreed. But he is in the position of having to show not tell, as Michael Gove might put it. And with public spending soaring and tax revenues simultaneously sinking, it is not the daftest idea to take a bet on him not being able to do that any time soon.

If the coming recession is deeper and longer-lasting than expected; the apparently limitless appetite of financial markets to lend to the UK Government starts to wane; some of Dishy Rishi’s job-saving schemes simply do not work; the opinion polls swing against the Tories – former investment banker Javid may be seen to have taken an astute position.

And he will know that he is playing to a potentially powerful constituency. The recent Mind The Values Gap report by the think-tank The UK In A Changing Europe found that Tory MPs as a body have stayed instinctively right-wing on economic policy, even as their Government has moved onto currently fashionable redistributive turf.

If the Government succeeds in steering us through the very choppy waters ahead, without sustaining disastrous economic damage, then it is hard to see anyone stopping Rishi Sunak from taking over the party leadership and becoming prime minister when the time comes.

But if it doesn’t – if the economic storms render the Johnsonian idea of ‘levelling-up’ via big state spending schemes unaffordable from the perspective of even the most pragmatic Conservatives – then the peppery Thatcherism of personal incentives, self-reliance, public spending cuts and sink or swim may come into vogue again.

In those circumstances it is possible to foresee a close contest between two British Asian politicians for the Tory crown – three if Home Secretary Priti Patel is also on the up at the time.

This week, the Boy Wonder who married a billionaire’s daughter pulled off yet another triumphant ideal son-in-law audition. But the Banker took a bet.

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