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George Parker reviews 'All to Play for: The Advance of Rishi Sunak'

Rishi Sunak | Image by: SST / Alamy Photo

3 min read

The overarching theme of Lord Ashcroft’s revised and updated biography of Rishi Sunak is a portrayal of a politician trying to do the right thing

If Rishi Sunak needs cheering up, then Michael Ashcroft’s latest account of the Prime Minister’s career may be the answer. While some political commentators feel certain Sunak’s premiership is doomed, Ashcroft is not so sure.

The clue to the book’s theme is in the title: All to Play For. Ashcroft concludes that the country may yet re-elect a politician who, by his account, is a relentlessly hard-working, bright and principled occupant of No 10.

He foresees a presidential-style election campaign, in which Sunak will prove himself to be more vibrant, more experienced and a better communicator than Sir Keir Starmer. “Who will prove preferable to the majority of the British public?” he asks.

It’s true that Sunak remains more popular than his party, but that is not saying much. His personal approval ratings recently hit their lowest since he became PM, with almost two-thirds of voters telling YouGov they held an unfavourable view of him.

Ashcroft’s latest book is a revised and updated version of his 2020 tome – Going for Broke: The Rise of Rishi Sunak – and brings readers up to date with Sunak’s role in Boris Johnson’s downfall, his Tory leadership defeat to Liz Truss, and his eventual arrival in Downing Street.

Speaking to friends of Sunak and government insiders, Ashcroft largely rejects the belief of Johnson and his supporters that the current Prime Minister plotted relentlessly to overthrow their hero – rather positing that Johnson overthrew himself.

He tantalisingly suggests that somebody in Johnson’s inner circle leaked details to the press about the non-dom status of Sunak’s wife

“Wide of the mark,” is Ashcroft’s conclusion, although The Telegraph’s political editor Ben Riley-Smith’s new book, The Right to Rule, is more sceptical of the “clean hands” theory.

Ashcroft argues that in the end Sunak’s belief in fiscal rectitude and his determination to take decisions that were in Britain’s long-term interests – not of the next day’s news cycle – made it impossible for him to carry on working with Johnson.

Ashcroft describes Johnson’s growing certainty that Sunak was out to get him. “I don’t want hungry lions around the cabinet table, I want tired old lions,” the former PM told colleagues.

He also tantalisingly suggests that somebody in Johnson’s inner circle leaked details to the press about the non-domiciled status of Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murty, saying a “question mark” remains over whether that person acted illegally.

The overarching theme of Ashcroft’s book is a portrayal of a politician trying to do the right thing, including insisting that Johnson raised national insurance to pay for social care reforms, even if it helped his enemies to portray him as a high-tax, big state chancellor.

AlltoplayforAshcroft struggles to find witnesses to define “Sunakism” or to answer what he says is the key question: “What is Sunak’s vision for the future of Britain as we enter the second quarter of the 21st century?” After almost 500 pages, one might perhaps have hoped for a few more clues.

But Sunak’s advisers admit that he entered Downing Street after the chaos of the Liz Truss premiership with a promise to fix things, calculating that voters wanted to see delivery rather than hear more political promises.

We are assured that things will become clearer at the Conservative conference in Manchester. Tory MPs will hope their leader can prove to the country that it really still is “all to play for”. 

George Parker is political editor of The Financial Times

All to Play for: The Advance of Rishi Sunak
By: Michael Ashcroft
Publisher: Biteback

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