Salvation for Sunak as he leads Conservatives to slaughter

Between Heath and Major: History will treat PM kinder than four predecessors

The British election on 4 July is important not because of any great uncertainty about the outcome – the Tories are heading for the exit – but because it will help signal the UK’s role in a changing world.  And what better figure to illustrate this than the man who has been the country’s first Indian-heritage prime minister?

By announcing the summer election date, Rishi Sunak has saved his job for the next six weeks. Various contenders – Suella Braverman (former home secretary), Kemi Badenoch (business and trade secretary), Liz Truss (his predecessor as prime minister) – were aiming to unseat him as soon as they saw their chance.

Now he has thrown down the gauntlet. His rivals will have to get in line behind him. He will go out, after less than two years as PM – but still seven times as long as Truss. There will be no tumbrels and no guillotine. He leaves with his head held high – and still on his own shoulders.

The battle is on. A battle Sunak and his party will lose. The Labour lead in the polls has been steady, confirmed by the May local elections.

The one qualification is that the Israel-Hamas battle is not yet at an end. There is no reason to think it will be over by July. Labour faces an irruption by supporters of former leader Jeremy Corbyn, working in a separate group, modelled on the one that propelled an independent member of parliament to win the previously safe Labour seat of Rochdale in northwest England. Such groups could capture 20-25 seats where the Muslim vote is strong. But none of those seats will go to Sunak.

It will be a slaughter. But, for Sunak, there will be salvation. For what will he be remembered? His path to the top from his Indian background is a big, solid achievement, as much for the Conservative party as for Sunak. In terms of choosing women leaders, as well as having a multi-racial front bench, the Conservatives are well ahead of Labour. We are still waiting for a non-London female leader of the ‘people’s party’.

Sunak must be praised for calming the financial markets after the Truss debacle in autumn 2022. As perhaps the most financial market-savvy MP, Sunak knows how fragile market confidence can be and has steered the UK boat into a safe harbour.

He started off his term with statesmanlike promises. Luckily for him, inflation has come down – the most visible pledge. On sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda, my judgment (from the cross benches of the House of Lords, which has spent months refining legislation on this) is that he spent a lot of goodwill on it. The question is: whether he really believes the scheme will work? Or was he doing it to save his skin? I believe the answer is the latter.

Sunak’s basic problem is that he is not a politician. He has been MP for just nine years, with a background as an asset manager with an MBA from Stanford. The first time I met him, about a decade ago, I had the feeling he was a man of great talent – but his main skills lay outside politics. He should be running a bank, not a political party.

Luckily for him, he was backed for early promotion by Boris Johnson, prime minister after David Cameron and Theresa May. Sunak became chancellor of the exchequer just before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. He could spend money he did not have as imaginatively as was needed. There were excesses and fraud. But Sunak survived.

Sunak was prime minister by accident. He will bow out just two months after his 44th birthday. His next job? If I were him, I would go to a big multinational bank. His legacy? I have known all the British prime ministers since Harold Wilson. History will treat Sunak relatively kindly. Judgment on his four immediate predecessors – David Cameron (maladroit), Theresa May (mediocre), Johnson (maverick), Truss (mad) – will be harsher. Sunak can be placed somewhere between Edward Heath and John Major. Not a bad record for him to take away from Downing Street.

Meghnad Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Chair of the OMFIF Advisory Council and Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords.

Image credit: Number 10

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