History is littered with politicians who aspire to climb the greasy political pole and serve as Prime Minister. However, only a select few win the top prize. In the 300 years since the creation of the office, over fifty Britons have served as Prime Minister. However, the list of Prime Ministers who never were is infinite in length.
Rishi Sunak has joined this extensive list for both of these reasons. How did he go from being the natural successor to Boris Johnson just a year ago to being a political dud?
Most fantasy Prime Ministers are held in such high esteem because they appear as natural successors to the leaders they serve under. Being Chancellor of the Exchequer is undoubtedly the most powerful role in government and is often seen as the perfect path to Number 10.
Asquith, Lloyd George, Baldwin, Chamberlain, Macmillan, Major, and Brown all became Prime Ministers directly from the Chancellorship. However, that position has also produced some of the most illustrious Prime Ministers we’ve never had. Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Ken Clarke, and George Osborne were all tipped during their Chancellorships to become Prime Minister, but they never made it, all for two reasons.
Firstly, as Chancellor, they implemented policies that were deemed unpopular – Healey and Osborne are classic examples. Secondly, some did not have the support of their own party when the time came. The Conservative Party of the 1950s and 1960s was intent on ensuring that Butler never reached Number 10, while both Jenkins and Clarke became detached from the mainstream of their parties.
When Sunak was appointed Chancellor in February 2020, he quickly generated confidence. The currency rose and the markets looked on in confidence – this was just two months after the 2019 Conservative victory.
As COVID-19 hit the following month, Sunak was propelled into a position where he was seen as Britain’s economic saviour. When the Treasury announced the furlough scheme at the start of the first lockdown, Sunak enjoyed huge levels of popularity for aiding employees in the public crisis. He was rated the most popular Chancellor in decades. But in the gleam of such popularity, the wheels of success began to detach from the bus.
The economic aftermath of the pandemic and the rise of inflation have been economically brutal. The cost-of-living crisis, exhausted by the highest level of inflation since the early 1990s, hugely damaged Sunak’s apparent asset of economic reliability. During most of his time in Number 11, Sunak was not in control of the country’s economy – it became a victim of events.
However, policy was not the only area where Sunak’s support collapsed. It must never be forgotten that Rishi Sunak was – like Boris Johnson – fined for breaching lockdown rules. A Prime Minister and Chancellor who both break the laws they create is bound to have consequences, and the public’s perception of the ex-Chancellor fell as inflation rose.
Although Sunak may join Johnson in that derisory camp, the two politicians have always been vastly different politically – this has been a major contributing factor in the political failures of both politicians.
Like many, I have watched the Tory leadership race with great interest, especially because it appears that Liz Truss has stolen the clothing of her rival. Rishi Sunak is – and remains – the most ardent of neo-Thatcherites. Therefore, Johnson’s appointment of Sunak as Chancellor was a confusing one. While Johnson exuded Keynesian beliefs with the idea of levelling up, his Chancellor was the antithesis of that. Despite Sunak’s Thatcherite beliefs, he has been tarred with the brush of levelling-up, leaving him a hated target amongst Thatcherites.
And that is where Sunak’s story ends with a contradiction. Despite Boris Johnson’s dismal performance as Prime Minister and the thin and lacklustre support he received from his own MPs (many of whom are Thatcherites), he has received this mythical status because Sunak is now seen as his assassin.
When Michael Heseltine challenged Margaret Thatcher for the leadership of the Tory party in November 1990, it was both a bold proposal for new leadership and political suicide. While he successfully brought down the leader he wished to succeed, his Tory colleagues could not forgive the political murder of a leader who had won them three elections.
Ridiculously, Boris Johnson had achieved Thatcher-like stature. When Rishi Sunak’s resignation brought Johnson down, the ex-Chancellor had little hope even amongst the most Thatcherite of Thatcherites. Sunak’s once-clear path to Number 10 was once void of obstacles, but his betrayal of the man who gave him his fame was the final straw.
So, what is next for Sunak? As Boris Johnson refuses to rule out a possible political comeback, is there such luck for the 42-year-old ex-Chancellor who has only been in Parliament for seven years?
Like Johnson, Sunak has been mortally wounded. However, as the current Conservative Party views Johnson of a victim of backstabbing, Sunak’s chances are near impossible. As the man who betrayed an election-winning leader, a Sunak leadership would not be welcome with open arms.
The problem with politics today is that it has become an industry of short-termers. As Sunak indicates he will not serve in a Truss government, it seems likely that he’ll retire from Parliament sometime before the next election with less than a decade of experience in high office.
Whether he goes off to America and heads an international bank is irrelevant. The story of Rishi Sunak is remarkable for its brevity. In 1979, it was Michael Foot who said of Liberal leader David Steel that he had “passed from rising hope to elders statesman without any intervening period.”
Let that stand as an epitaph to the political career of Rishi Sunak…
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