Rishi Sunak’s loss leaves Tories sharply divided in Liz Truss regime

Truss’s failure to accommodate Rishi’s supporters and her relatively narrow win spell trouble for her with antagonistic backbenches; and, at 42, Rishi has age on his side for future elections

Rishi Sunak loss
Rishi Sunak may have lost out on the prize but to have gotten so far was in itself an achievement.

Rishi Sunak officially lost the Conservative Party leadership contest last week and became the first person of Indian-origin — or for that matter of colour —  to have gotten within touching distance of the coveted position of Prime Minister of Great Britain. He may have lost out on the prize but to have got so far was in itself an achievement.

The odds were against Rishi from the beginning. However, his opponent Liz Truss did not get the landslide victory she had been predicted to have, or her supporters had hoped for. Truss managed to secure 57% of Conservative members’ votes, while Rishi did extremely well, getting 43% of the votes cast.

Rishi had led in the leadership contest at the start and, as long as the Tory Members of Parliament were the only voters, he was the favourite to succeed Boris Johnson. However, as soon as the ballots went out to the just over 172,000 dues-paying Conservative party members, his lead began to drop. By the end of the six-week campaign, the bookies were giving him only a 5% chance of winning.

Also read: New UK PM Liz Truss appoints diverse Cabinet, Rishi Sunak allies are out


While he may have been the best person for the top job and obviously his peers thought so, Tory members did not agree. So much so that almost two-thirds of them voted without even giving Rishi a chance and listening to him. It was among the undecided members that Rishi was able to persuade that he was the better candidate and gather ground. 

Finally, Rishi was able to garner 60,399 votes but this was not enough to beat Truss’s 81,326 votes.

To put Rishi’s defeat in perspective, Truss’s victory with 57% votes is the lowest since members first got the opportunity to vote, in 1998. It doesn’t come anywhere close to the thumping majority Johnson received in 2019, when he collected 66% of the votes and his opponent Jeremy Hunt got 34%. David Cameron, ex-Prime Minister, did even better, winning 68% votes against David Davis’s 32% in 2005.

Divide and rule

That the campaign was bitter and Rishi was not an easy candidate to beat is manifested by the fact that Truss was not magnanimous in victory. She refused to look at Rishi or shake hands with him when the results were announced and before she gave her short, very pedestrian acceptance speech. When it came to forming her cabinet she excluded all MPs who had supported Rishi’s candidature, almost as a punishment.

The massacre of Rishi-ites was condemned by veterans in the party, who felt that giving some meaningful jobs to MPs who had backed Rishi would have gone some way to uniting a badly divided party. Truss didn’t listen to the sage advice and culled from top to bottom. 

She was seen as the Johnson continuity candidate and made it clear that was exactly what she was by heaping praise on her predecessor in her acceptance speech, and rubbing home the point that unlike Rishi, she had been loyal to Boris. 

The former Prime Minister was so upset with Rishi’s resignation as Chancellor of the Exchequer on July 5 — which set off the domino effect leading to his removal — that he launched an “anyone but Rishi” campaign.

Truss’s team defended her cabinet by pointing out that while Rishi had not been offered a position, five other leadership rivals were given cabinet posts. However, they failed to say that after being knocked out of the contest, all five had backed Truss.

South Asians dropped

Apart from Rishi, Truss has dropped all the South Asian ministers in Boris’s cabinet. Priti Patel, the Gujarati-origin home secretary and staunch supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi; Shailesh Vara, the Indian-origin Northern Ireland secretary; and Sajid Javid, the Pakistani-origin health secretary and ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, were all left out of the new Cabinet. Javid had resigned from Boris’s ministry just minutes before Rishi and had surprisingly pulled out of the leadership contest hours before it started. Once the two finalists were announced, Javid had even come out in favour of Truss, but it did not help him make the cut.

Patel, on the other hand, failed to muster enough supporters to launch a leadership bid of her own. She played her cards close to her chest and did not openly support either candidate, hoping to be retained in the Cabinet by whoever became the new prime minister. 

Once Truss was announced the winner and Patel gauged she would not be retained, she resigned of her own accord to be effective from the following day when Truss would be formally made Prime Minister.

Also read: ‘Disloyalty’ to Boris may cost Rishi Sunak dear in British PM race

Truss replaced Patel with Suella Braverman as home secretary. Braverman is now the only senior Indian-origin minister in the cabinet. The 42-year-old was Attorney General in Boris’s administration and is considered to be even more Right-wing than her predecessor. 

Braverman’s Tamil-origin mother Uma and Goan-origin father Christie Fernandes migrated to the UK from Mauritius and Kenya in the 1960s. She is a practising Buddhist, who married Rael Braverman in 2018 and they have two children.

Ethnically diverse

Truss’s Cabinet has been hailed as one of the UK’s most ethnically diverse —  more so than even Boris’s. But, barring Braverman, she has replaced all the senior South Asian ministers with those of African descent. Rishi has been replaced with Ghanian-origin Kwasi Kwarteng, as the UK’s first black Chancellor of the exchequer and Truss’s own former portfolio of Foreign Affairs has gone to James Cleverly, who is of a mixed Sierra Leone and white heritage. The new International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch is of African descent, too. Born in London to Nigerian parents, Badenoch will be responsible for securing a historic trade deal with India.

Truss’s failure to accommodate Rishi’s supporters and the relatively narrow win spell trouble for her with antagonistic backbenches. Those MPs who have been deliberately neglected are not going to make her life easy. She has said that she will lead the Conservative party into the next general election scheduled for 2024, but there is every likelihood that she may call for an early snap poll if she sees her popularity in the country rising during a honeymoon period.

As for Rishi, he has returned to backbenches for the time being. But, at 42, he has age on his side. If Truss fails to win the next election, there is absolutely no reason why Rishi cannot have another crack at the Tory leadership – whether he will fare any better then is another question.

(Sajeda Momin has held senior positions in Indian newspapers and now divides her time between Kolkata and London) 

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