Conservative leadership contest: Why votes for Rishi Sunak are important even if Liz Truss looks set to win – John McLellan

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, or as medical doctor Liam Fox MP put it at a recent campaign event in Edinburgh for Rishi Sunak, a retroscope guarantees a 100 per cent diagnosis rate, and as the last fortnight of the Conservative leadership contest looks like turning into a Liz Truss victory tour, the ex-Chancellor can be forgiven for reflecting on the last six months and wondering what he might have done differently.

Conservative party leadership candidate Rishi Sunak is behind in polls of party members (Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Conservative party leadership candidate Rishi Sunak is behind in polls of party members (Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Issues of loyalty and who dealt Boris Johnson the coup de grace haven’t featured, when, like the Orient Express, it was delivered by an entire cast of characters, and with her regular “Fizz with Liz” gatherings with MPs, the Foreign Secretary was waiting in the dining car anyway.

If, as has been claimed, Mr Sunak’s resignation was the breaking point, when the Prime Minister wanted more money for health care without spending cuts last September, what if he’d resigned on the principle of keeping the manifesto pledge not to raise taxes?

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As the man who delivered furlough and then exposed the Johnson administration’s tax, spend and borrow approach, who stuck to his guns while the rest of the Cabinet stuck with a pledge-busting policy, he might have been the one enjoying a 32-point lead entering the home straight.

But he didn’t and, now unfairly cast as the Conservative Chancellor who sold the low-tax jersey, elections expert Sir John Curtice has him as a 20-1 shot against the odds-on favourite, endorsing the reliability of this week’s YouGov and Conservative Home website polling which both put Ms Truss so far ahead that only a “spectacular error” will stop her receiving the keys to Number 10.

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The temptation for members yet to vote is to treat it like a horse race and back the winner, with no each-way option to spread the risk and the opportunity. But is it really so simple? If, as Sir John argued, Mr Sunak has the right policies while Ms Truss has the right politics for the moment, then the right outcome should be a blend of the two.

Ms Truss is getting plaudits for a hard-headed focus on the job in hand, winning over the membership, and Mr Sunak criticism for playing to a wider audience, but on September 6 it’s that wider audience which matters.

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The single-mindedness will need to extend to the emergency budget the new Chancellor, tipped to be Kwasi Kwarteng, must present almost immediately, so with dire warnings about the impact of big tax cuts on inflation, perhaps the promised reductions will be more limited than rank-and-file supporters might be expecting. Only she knows.

Maybe the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ analysis is too “orthodox”, but its warning that spending cuts to match significant tax reductions will be needed to avoid breaking another manifesto commitment not to borrow for day-to-day spending rings true.

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With inflation running at ten per cent and set to hit 13 by October, the promised growth will not materialise because the benefit of cancelling the 1.25 per cent National Insurance hike will be instantly swallowed by inflated prices of basic goods, like the 10p which has just gone on a two-litre carton of milk, not boost demand.

As 70 per cent of companies are not affected by the proposed rise in Corporation Tax, but are being smashed by eye-watering energy bills, across-the-board tax cutting is a blunt instrument when limited resources demand precision.

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Despite appearing in several newspapers pictured behind Rishi Sunak in Edinburgh two weeks ago, I headed to the Perth hustings with my vote uncast, waiting until I’d seen the contenders perform for myself, particularly how they commanded an audience and, crucially, who had the greatest potential to inspire floating voters to put their crosses in Conservative boxes at the next election, probably in less than two years’ time.

Most observers gave the bout to Ms Truss on a narrow points decision, but it was hard to draw a firm conclusion from an uneven contest in which the interrogator, STV’s Colin Mackay, gave Ms Truss a far easier ride.

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Maybe she handled him better, maybe he backed off because the audience let Mr Mackay know hectoring Mr Sunak was more suited to the TV studio than a private members’ hustings, and at least Mr Sunak showed he could keep his cool under pressure.

Two weeks ago in Edinburgh, he was bullish about it all being still to play for, but on Tuesday his tone was much more pleading and he looked to me like a man who knew the game was up.

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The priority now should be unification ─ the rabble outside Perth Concert hall was a timely reminder ─ and as he was the clear winner of the MPs’ vote, Ms Truss should not honour her public commitment to offer him a Cabinet post with anything which looks like he’s being set up to fail.

There are rumours he could be offered Health, given he has made much of his parents’ medical background, but that might fall into that category and be politely rejected.

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Education secretary James Cleverley is tipped for the Foreign Office, but that looks like the job most likely to recognise Mr Sunak’s parliamentary support while distancing him from a domestic agenda in which the fissures have been all too obvious.

His realism and the talent which won him parliamentary backing should not be squandered, and to ensure that doesn’t happen he needs membership support as well, so despite the 95 per cent chance I will once again be on the losing side Mr Sunak got my vote.

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As the new Prime Minster must be ruthless if the energy-driven cost-of-living crisis is to be beaten, her programme can’t be that different to his. But if untargeted tax give-aways do nothing but fuel inflation and the economy tanks next year, it will be too late for Ms Truss to grab Dr Fox’s retroscope and see that Mr Sunak was right all along.

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