There are few positions so perilous as being the frontrunner in a party leadership contest. Just being the heir apparent when no contest is happening is dicey enough, with the incumbent leader usually highly susceptible to murmurings from courtiers about your alleged manoeuvrings against him.
But once the race is actively underway things get even more dangerous. You become the contender everyone else needs to destroy before the decisive round of voting gets underway. Them’s the breaks right now for Rishi Sunak, the golden boy with the silver tongue who kept many people’s businesses afloat and the economy out of a long-term slump during the pandemic. He is easily the bookies’ favourite to take over from Boris Johnson and has a comfortable lead in MP endorsements as well. It would certainly take a dramatic collapse to prevent him from reaching the final two candidates, on which the wider party membership will vote on.
And yet such a collapse is not beyond the bounds of realistic possibility and neither is the idea of the party grassroots exacting a terrible vengeance against him over the ousting of Boris Johnson. Sunak finds himself in the Heseltine position of being the would-be replacement most blamed for the downfall of an extraordinary, election-winning leader. It is widely reported that Johnson himself is gunning for him, convinced that Sunak has been plotting against him for months.
There’s also the fact that Sunak registered his leadership website just days after the first major partygate story broke back in December. Then there’s the fact he delivered his ‘I wouldn’t have said it’ attack on Boris Johnson’s jibe about Keir Starmer and Jimmy Savile on the very day that Johnson’s policy chief Munira Mirza walked out (who, incidentally, is married to one of Sunak’s best friends); and the fact, too, that the ‘career psychopath’ Dominic Cummings, that obsessive destroyer of Johnson, is known to be a Sunak admirer. All these facts and some non-facts too are being woven into a narrative that has seen the former chancellor dubbed ‘the snake’ by one Downing Street official.
Given that at least half of the wider Tory membership didn’t want Johnson to go, Sunak must know that his looming encounter with them may turn into what they term in military circles as ‘a meeting without coffee’. At least he has a little time to prepare for that and if anyone can talk himself out of a tight spot then he can. But right now any number of rivals are plotting to get him eliminated from the contest earlier.
Talking of military circles, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who has announced he will not stand for leader, is believed to possess sufficient material to blow Sunak up over his attitude towards funding essential assistance to Ukraine. Sunak reportedly failed to reply to a key letter from Wallace warning him about the consequences of a shortfall in the MoD budget. At the same time as being blamed for underfunding defence, the former chancellor is being sniped at for allegedly adopting a high ‘tax and spend’ approach said to be inconsistent with true conservative principles.
Meanwhile, I was recently briefed by another senior minister that Sunak has been deliberately trying to emasculate the government’s approach towards forcing Brussels to agree changes to the Northern Ireland protocol – another damaging charge in the eyes of eurosceptic MPs and party members.
The matters of his family’s previously quite complicated tax arrangements and his own holding of a US green card for years after becoming an MP are also being raised again, as is the fact that he was hit – quite unfairly in my view – with a fixed penalty notice for the very same technical breach of lockdown law as was the Prime Minister. These briefings will only intensify in the coming days. With so many more early backers than the other candidates, Sunak must be heavily favoured to reach the final round. But it is still conceivable that he will only finish third.
The Sunak campaign reminds me of nothing so much as the Michael Portillo leadership bid of 2001. In the early days, Portillo seemed an unstoppable force – the ultra-sleek, media darling who attracted waves of careerist support. But he stalled – partly due to the influence of allies of William Hague who were determined to block him on grounds of alleged disloyalty towards their old boss. Portillo fell just short of the last two.
‘The slave is free,’ was Portillo’s response and his subsequent glittering career as a broadcaster would seem to indicate that the sense of relief he communicated was genuine. Were the same fate to befall Sunak, a man who sometimes gives the impression of being addicted to social and political climbing just for the sake of it, one would expect a very different set of emotions to apply.
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