By reaching the final two in the battle for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Britain, Rishi Sunak has gone further than any politician of Indian-origin, but it seems this is where his meteoric rise will stop. If the polls are to be believed then it is unlikely that Sunak will emerge victorious and break that final glass ceiling of becoming the UK’s first prime minister of colour.
Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, may have led in the votes cast by Tory MPs earlier in the month, winning 137 votes as opposed to his rival Liz Truss, Foreign Secretary who only managed 113 MP votes, but when it comes to Conservative Party members Sunak is very much the underdog.
Ballot papers for the leadership contest will be sent out to Conservative Party members from August 1-5 and the 1,60,000 voters – only 0.3 per cent of UK’s total electorate – have until September 2 to vote by post or online and choose the eventual winner. The results will be declared on September 5. Given that a large number of the Tory members are expected to vote as soon as they receive their ballot papers, Sunak needs to act quickly if wants to change the opinion of Conservative grassroots.
The opinion polls show Truss is the favourite among the party faithful and Sunak has a lot of ground to make up. The wider public is more favourable towards the idea of Sunak as Prime Minister with an Opinion poll showing that 43 per cent thought Sunak would be a good prime minister, while 45 per cent thought he would make a bad one. The same survey showed that 36 per cent of the public believed Truss would make a good prime minister while 41 per cent thought she would be bad as PM.
However it is not the general public who get to choose in this contest but the Tory party members and in a poll conducted by YouGov after the first head-to-head televised debate on Monday night, 49 per cent of the members backed Truss and only 31 per cent supported Sunak. The poll also suggested that 15 per cent were undecided and 6 per cent did not intend to vote. Once the ‘don’t knows’ and those not planning on voting are removed, it gives Truss a sizable 24-point lead over Sunak.
The American-style TV debate was vicious with the two candidates taking chunks out of each other, clashing on taxation, Brexit, China and even the schools they attended. Sunak was accused of being overly aggressive and interrupting Truss “20 times in the first 12 minutes,” which according to Truss supporters came off as a bit too much like ‘mansplaining’ and a little rude. On the other hand Sunak supporters thought Truss showed herself as being “illiterate on the economy,” colourless and boring.
Recognising that he has to appeal to Conservative members who are predominantly white, middle-aged or elderly, middle class, affluent and right wing in their thinking, Sunak spent the weekend trying to find his inner Tory. He went to Grantham in Lincolnshire, the hometown of modern Conservative icon Margaret Thatcher and projected himself as a Thatcherite. Taking his Infosys heiress wife Akshata Murthy and their two daughters Krishna and Anoushka on the campaign trail, Sunak told the audience that he was a family man and that he had learnt his Conservative values of hard work from his doctor father and pharmacist mother.
However, the photographs that emerged from the Grantham showed Sunak surrounded by brown faces holding up ‘Ready for Rishi’ placards – which will not have gone down too well with the Tories. Sunak is assured of the support of South Asian-origin Conservative members, but there are not too many of them. He desperately needs the support of the white members, most of whom voted for Brexit because they wanted curbs on immigration, hence it is probably expecting too much from them to now handover the keys of 10 Downing Street to the son of immigrants.
Interestingly, the YouGov survey showed that Truss’s support among Brexit-voting Tory members is higher than Sunak, despite the fact that she campaigned for remaining in the European Union in the 2016 referendum. Sunak had campaigned and voted for Leave during the same referendum.
Ironically, Sunak has also been criticised by his rival’s supporters for being too rich. Sunak and his wife’s combined wealth put the couple in the Times Rich List this year, but that could have been a negative for the former venture capitalist if he was vying for the socialist Labour Party leadership but not the Conservatives – the party of affluence and capitalism.
Even the former Chancellor’s designer footwear came under the spotlight when he visited a construction site in Teesside. His £450 Prada shoes appeared on the front page of many newspapers. Nadine Dorries, minister for culture and vocal Truss supporter noted that her favoured candidate would be “travelling the country wearing earrings which cost circa £4.50 from Claire’s Accessories,” in sharp contrast to Sunak who visited Teesside “in Prada shoes worth £450” and a “£3,500 bespoke suit.”
The race to become the next Conservative leader and prime minister has also turned into a bitter row over taxation. Truss and Sunak have set out very different visions of how to solve the cost-of-living crisis prompted by an inflation rate that stands at more than 9 per cent. Truss has set out a plan to cut taxes to the tune of £55 billion, while Sunak had insisted he would only cut taxes once inflation came under control. However, after criticism of his performance during the TV debate Sunak has offered to cut the 5 per cent VAT on energy bills if prices of gas and electricity continue to rise.
There are loads more debates lined up between now and September 2 as well as around a dozen members-only hustings in which Sunak will get the opportunity to try and narrow the large gap between him and Truss, however it is unclear if there is enough time for him to overturn Truss’s lead.
(Sajeda Momin has held senior positions in Indian newspapers and now divides her time between Kolkata and London)
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