Rishi Sunak Is Biding His Time As Liz Truss Clings On For Her Political Life
Rishi Sunak attends the premiere of Matilda the Musical (Alamy)
There was a moment during Rishi Sunak’s thank you speech to leadership campaign staff on Thursday night when a member of his defeated team remarked “we were proven right”.
Less than 24 hours later, Prime Minister Liz Truss announced another highly-damaging U-turn on the economic agenda that was central to her victorious campaign.
Hours earlier she had also sacked Kwasi Kwarteng – the close political ally chosen to deliver that libertarian vision – as her Chancellor of the Exchequer. With Kwarteng she had carved out a polar opposite policy position to that of Sunak, who warned that her radical tax cutting agenda would unleash chaos in the markets, which came to pass following last month's "mini-Budget".
Her humiliation was compounded later in the day during an eight-minute Downing Street press conference in which the Prime Minister was repeatedly asked to explain how she could credibly stay in power.
Truss brought the press conference to an abrupt end after just four questions from journalists, with one reporter asking her "aren't you going to say sorry?" as she disappeared into the depths of Downing Street.
Sources present at Sunak's Thursday night wake for his unsuccessful leadership bid said the schadenfreude-laden assessment of Truss's first few week's in office prompted cheers in the "super boutique" Londoner Hotel.
Held at the venue's Japanese-themed "8" bar, activists who worked on the campaign enjoyed spectacular views across central London alongside influential Sunak-backing Tory MPs including Treasury select committee chair Mel Stride, former chief Mark Harper, ex-party chairman Oliver Dowden and Richard Holden, MP for North West Durham.
The former chancellor, who lost out to Truss when Tory party members decided this summer who should replace Boris Johnson as Conservative party leader and prime minister, has loomed large over Westminster in recent weeks, despite largely being out of sight since his loss to Truss.
His backers are all too keen to point out that the economic turmoil that has followed last month’s “mini budget” – which has seen the pound plummet, interest rates surge, and the Bank of England make two major interventions – was what Sunak warned would happen in his debates with Truss about tax cuts.
Perhaps the most embarrassing element of the Prime Minister’s decision on Friday to raise corporation tax was not just that maintaining the current level of 19% was a major plank of her winning campaign, but that increasing it was a Sunak policy when he was in the Treasury.
Former Cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt, who was one of Sunak’s most senior backers, is the new Chancellor – giving the moderates a powerful voice in Truss’ fragile government.
Sunak’s economic prescience meant that as the Prime Minister’s week rapidly unravelled, lending fresh urgency to questions about the future of her leadership, his name was high on MPs’ list of possible replacements.
A report by The Times on Friday said that Conservatives who are pushing for Truss to go want to bypass the party members and crown a “joint ticket” of Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, the House of Commons Leader who came third in the race to replace Johnson this summer.
But a Sunak ally said that the story was the first that the former-Chancellor had heard of the idea and insisted that he had not been involved in discussions with the Conservatives MPs behind it.
Those familiar with Sunak’s thinking insist he is enjoying his chance to rest and that we should not expect him back in the fray of frontline politics anytime soon.
“People forget this is a guy who was thrust to Chancellor during a pandemic and had to run the toughest department,” one ally said.
Another who attended Thursday’s get-together said Sunak did not discuss his political prospects or what he plans to do next, and instead “wanted to hear about them, what they had been up to, developments in their life and whether they got a break”.
But while there is a feeling that Sunak will see little appeal in taking over at a time of economic crisis and the Tory party facing catastrophic losses at the next general election, those who PoliticsHome spoke to agreed that Sunak sees his long-term future in Westminster politics.
With furious Conservative MPs speculating that Truss may be ousted as soon as next week, the former chancellor will struggle to avoid his name being linked to 10 Downing Street.
When he emerged from his brief hiatus on Wednesday with an appearance at a Tate Modern reception hosted by Bloomberg alongside his wife, Akshata Murty, an ally said he looked “re-energised”.
In the weeks since the turbulent leadership campaign, Sunak has retreated away from the glare of the political limelight to his Richmond, North Yorkshire constituency, where he remains a well-liked local MP.
“Rishi has clearly enjoyed having some family time being a dad and husband again. He seems so relaxed, refreshed and rejuvenated,” a source close to Sunak, who also attended Thursday’s drinks said.
“His speech was funny, referring to taking fashion advice from Nadine Dorries, a bit self-deprecating, and very warm about the nice little team we’d built.”
On Thursday night Sunak himself avoided commentating on the performance of his rival and devoted his speech to thanking his campaign team, supporters stress. As the third chancellor since Sunak’s exit in July prepared to make their way to 11 Downing Street on Friday, there was little he needed to say.
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