LONDON — He’s the millionaire ex-chancellor who loves small states and sound money; the Brexit-voting former hedge fund boss who attended one of England’s most exclusive fee-paying schools.
Yet in the frenzied race to replace Boris Johnson as U.K. prime minister, it’s Rishi Sunak who now finds himself painted as the high tax, pro-EU candidate of the Tory left.
It’s been quite a ride for a man described only four months ago as a “Thatcherite in trainers” by the left-leaning Guardian newspaper.
“Rishi blasted on ‘socialist’ taxes,” the front page of the right-wing Daily Mail screamed last week, promoting an op-ed article from Johnson’s loyal lieutenant Jacob Rees-Mogg. “Sunak has squandered the Conservative Party’s decade-long efforts to build a competitive tax regime,” Rees-Mogg warned.
“Liz Truss: I’ll spike Sunak’s tax hike,” its sister paper the Mail on Sunday had splashed the previous weekend, celebrating the foreign secretary’s “true blue” campaign. Two days later, the Mail front page said ominously: “Truss — Back me or it’ll be Rishi.” It sounded like a warning to readers.
Plenty of Tory MPs remain unconvinced by this so-called ‘Get Rishi’ campaign.
Sunak picked up 118 votes from his colleagues in Tuesday’s fourth-round leadership ballot, retaining his place as the contest’s frontrunner and leaving him just two short of the 120 required to secure his place in the final head-to-head.
But his hopes of actually winning that contest were badly undermined by a YouGov opinion poll of Conservative Party members — the rank-and-file footsoldiers who will pick the winner from the final two candidates — which found he would be well beaten by either of his remaining opponents in the crucial head-to-head vote.
This glaring disparity between the views of Tory MPs and the party’s grassroots members is in part a reflection of a successful effort by enemies to undermine his record after two-and-a-half years as Johnson’s chancellor.
Opponents have accused Sunak of raising taxes to socialist levels — a blasphemous accusation in a party which idolizes the free-marketeer Margaret Thatcher.
Sunak’s critics repeatedly attack his tenure at the Treasury, which coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and consequently the heaviest public borrowing since World War II. Sunak’s attempts to reduce the burden on public finances through a national insurance hike for workers, and the reversal of business tax cuts, have enraged his enemies further.
“Rishi, you have raised taxes to the highest level in 70 years,” Truss told him pointedly in Sunday night’s ITV hustings. “That is not going to drive economic growth.”
“The ‘socialist’ tag reflects the size of the tax burden, the size of the state and inflation,” added an unimpressed Tory aide.
It’s all about EU
Improbably, Sunak also finds himself vulnerable to right-wing attacks on Brexit, despite having voted Leave in 2016. Some Brexiteers fear he would blink at the prospect of a damaging trade war with the EU, should relations deteriorate further in the months ahead.
Indeed it is Remain-voting Truss, now reinvented as the darling of the Tory right, who is seen as the tax-cutting, Brexit true-believer.
“[Truss] is the only candidate that’s going to get [Brexit] done. All of the others will be run by the civil service, and will cave to them,” Tory Brexiteer Marcus Fysh told Nigel Farage on GB News this week.
Sunak’s supporters claim to be relaxed by this “angle of attack.”
“Actually it’s ill-advised, because it just serves to highlight that Truss didn’t support Brexit in the first place,” one former political aide supportive of Sunak said. “It sort of forces him to come out and explain that he did.”
Indeed, Sunak supporters were gleeful when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they backed Brexit in a televised debate on Sunday.
“Truss was clearly desperate to raise her hand, but couldn’t,” the former adviser said with relish.
Nevertheless, with their candidate tanking in party membership polls, Team Sunak has felt obliged to launch counter-attacks against attempts to paint him as a soft-centred Tory.
At the weekend they released a tongue-in-cheek video titled “Rishi & Brexit: A Short History,” explaining how he went against the advice of his superiors as a young MP to campaign to leave the EU. It pointedly includes an image of his rival Truss promoting the ‘I’m In’ message that was one of the slogans of the campaign to remain inside the European Union.
And in an article for the Brexit-backing Sunday Telegraph, Sunak promised to rewrite former EU laws still “getting in the way” of British businesses, and outlined plans for a new Brexit minister and Brexit delivery department if he wins.
No, you’re the socialist
Sunak has also fought back on his economic record, labeling Truss’s own borrowing plans “socialism” at the ITV hustings Sunday night.
“He’s not a socialist. It’s absolute nonsense. He just believes in sound money. They’re the ones planning to borrow money to spend on things we can’t afford,” one senior backbench supporter said of Sunak’s rivals.
“To call the Conservative candidate a ‘socialist’, at least in my generation, it doesn’t make sense at all. I think it’s a smear,” a veteran former Tory MP added. “The bigger influence is being Chancellor of the Exchequer, and seeing the books.”
Another Tory MP backing Sunak believes many MPs are actually “very grumpy” about what the government was “forced” to do to prop up the economy when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.
Few of those branding Sunak a socialist raised objections at the time to the billions of pounds released for the furlough scheme, the MP pointed out.
“I don’t remember people saying ‘let businesses in my constituency go to the wall.’ I don’t remember people saying ‘don’t help people on furlough,’” the MP added. “Of course it’s big government — we’ve just had COVID.”
But the anti-Sunak political adviser quoted above insisted the COVID-19 outlay had been used by the Treasury as “justification for sort of total retrenchment” from Johnson’s broader post-Brexit plans.
Will Tanner, director of the centre-right Onward think tank, said in truth, Sunak’s campaign had been “notable for the fact that he hasn’t wedded himself to an ideological pitch.”
“It’s been relatively kind of centrist and establishment, actually, ” he added.
Torsten Bell, chief executive of the center-left Resolution Foundation, said Sunak was “obviously not a socialist in any meaningful use of the word,” but had fallen victim to the tension between “the fiscal conservatism element of Conservatism, and the lower taxes element of Conservatism.”
Revenge is sweet
One further dynamic clouds the picture over Sunak — the manner of his departure from government.
His dramatic resignation earlier this month helped precipitate Johnson’s final downfall, and came after months of what Johnson’s allies believed was blatant leadership plotting.
“This is a Conservative colleague who turned on the prime minister,” the hostile adviser quoted above replied, when asked about the ‘socialism’ charge against Sunak.
Indeed, supporters of Sunak believe many of the attacks are coming from Johnson loyalists intent on revenge, fearful their own ministerial careers could now be in jeopardy.
“There is a small cabal of people around Boris, a group of ministers, who frankly would not be ministers in any other government. And they’re out to get him,” the senior backbencher quoted above said.
But that doesn’t mean their efforts to rebrand him are not damaging his prospects of becoming prime minister.
“He’s just obviously much better than the rest of them,” one supportive Tory strategist said. “But he’s not where he needs to be on tax. If the others don’t blow themselves up during the campaign — which they blatantly could — then honestly, I’m not sure he wins.”