In their hearts, many conservatives, especially on the right, want a prime minister who copies Reagan’s optimistic and spendthrift ways, not an austere Margaret Thatcher-like leader.
Yet Sunak, who was Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer until his resignation precipitated the downfall of Boris Johnson last week, led the pack in the first three polls for Tory MPs and is now the ‘candidate of the establishment”. Nigel Lawson, for many years Thatcher’s ideological soul mate and chancellor, gave her his blessing.
But his chances are dwindling. While most of his rivals promised tax cuts in the tens of billions, Sunak, a chip from the former Thatcher bloc, rejected tax giveaways and warned of the dangers of an inflationary spiral of wages and prices. Today, many Tory MPs are hoping immediate tax cuts will stave off recession and ease their path to victory in the next general election, even if the price is a gaping deficit.
On paper, Sunak has most of the right stuff to win. His fierce intelligence and enormous work ethic shone at Winchester College, the second most famous private school in the country, and at Oxford University where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE), the degree of choice for future chancellors. As one would expect of a former investment banker and hedge fund manager at Goldman Sachs, he spent harrowing hours in the Treasury and led a disciplined life that put his Prime Minister Falstaffien to shame.
In a leadership race where six of the original 11 candidates were non-white, Sunak is also an advertisement for his party’s surprisingly diverse credentials. His Indian parents made their fortunes as immigrants from British colonial East Africa. And he won the affection of his local all-white party and voters in Richmond, a traditionalist northern seat, by embodying conservative values.
Sunak was also a staunch Brexiteer long before the EU referendum – another mark of a true Thatcher supporter. Yet the leaders of the Remain camp respected his sincere credentials for internationalism and free trade.
After three years of bombast and mayhem at No 10, the country should welcome a lowly and capable technocrat to steer the ship through choppy economic seas. On Thursday, however, the bookmakers were writing down the early favorite’s chances of winning the crown. Party members must deliver their verdict on which two candidates MPs will pick from the field, and that doesn’t look good for Sunak.
A YouGov poll of Tory members suggested that Penny Mordaunt, a former minister whose name is little recognized among voters, would beat Sunak 67% to 28%. In fact, the same poll indicated that almost every other candidate would beat him too.
Ironically, Sunak, the Thatcherite Brexiteer, risks being branded a ‘leftist’ candidate by his party. The former Chancellor’s ratings have been yo-yoing among Tory voters and members last year.
It seems only yesterday that his comprehensive pandemic furlough scheme made him the country’s most popular politician and sparked the jealousy of Boris Johnson. But his ratings plummeted when he tried to recoup the debt that paid to bail out Britain – the official cost of public spending during the pandemic ranges from around £310bn ($367bn) to £410bn. billion pounds, the equivalent of £4,600 to £6,100 per person in the UK.
The former chancellor has also resisted unfunded spending commitments from his former boss – and insisted that tax increases match better social services.
His party and the country resent the punch bowl being removed. After more than a decade of austerity, low growth, lockdowns and, now, a cost of living crisis, the public’s tolerance for pain may have been tested. Party members hate that the tax burden is at its highest since 1949, when the UK was ruled by a Socialist Labor government.
A BBC interview on Thursday morning showed Sunak at his wooden worst. He was defensive about his wealthy wife’s former non-domiciled tax status and unable to project the confidence of a natural winner. The sharks smelled the blood in the water. Now he has to show that he can fight to survive.
Because there is a real economic debate about whether the Thatcher or Reagan recipe is the right one for a sustainable recovery. Are inflation and unsustainable debt the real threat to the UK? Or is it a recession followed by years of anemic growth? Are Sunak’s big hikes in taxes on jobs and corporate profits overdone?
Third-place candidate Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, perhaps alone among her other rivals, has the power to engage with Sunak – she also read PPE at Oxford and is a former chief secretary to the Treasury . During Friday’s televised debate, Sunak accused her of being irresponsible and of believing in fairy tales about tax cuts. This should just be the start.
If the case for fiscal orthodoxy is true, then Sunak must now do it with real fire. He must persuade voters that the UK cannot afford the scale of the debt that America has assumed. Sooner or later, he too will have to take risks. It’s the mark of a true politician of conviction – like Margaret Thatcher, in fact.
(Updated penultimate paragraph with recent debate details)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion