The contest to see who becomes the next Conservative party leader and thus prime minister was remarkable for its swiftness. As this timeline of events shows, Liz Truss resigned on the afternoon of Thursday and by Monday morning the contest had been settled.
In the end Rishi Sunak managed to avoid a vote of the Conservative party membership (which he lost to Truss less than two months ago) when his rivals Boris Johnson and Penny Mordaunt withdrew their candidacies because they could not reach the high bar of 100 MP support that the party leaders had set for them to be nominated. The party leaders had clearly wanted to avoid putting it to a vote of the party membership, given how disastrous their selection of Truss had been and the likelihood of Johnson winning it this time, and their plan succeeded.
Sunak, apart from having South Asian ethnicity and being a Hindu, seems to be cut from the same cloth as other Conservative party leaders and prime ministers, being wealthy and privileged and having attended an elite private school (Winchester College) and Oxford University and has admitted in the past to socializing with only the wealthy and aristocratic and not having had any friends from outside that class. In addition he is married to a very wealthy woman, the daughter of an Indian billionaire. So he is, apart from his ethnic origins, just like the others in the British oligarchy. Although he is viewed as a safer set of hands to steward the economy than the pitiful Truss, he was once a supporter of Johnson and served as his Chancellor of the Exchequer until his resignation helped to topple Johnson.
Sunak has called for unity and stability, warning that the party risks serious losses if they don’t stop all the intra-party warfare. He is right but he should not be too optimistic that his call will be heeded for long. Right now the party is celebrating for having avoided a bruising leadership fight but you can be sure that that peace will not last very long. Ambitious Conservative politicians are probably already at work behind the scenes getting ready to topple Sunak if he should prove unable to revive the party’s fortunes in the two years left before elections have to be called in January 2025.
Although Johnson said he had obtained the support on 102 MPs to qualify but decided to withdraw for the sake of the country, that is very likely a face-saving lie to avoid the humiliation of not actually having received the threshold of 100. His statement of withdrawal was typical Johnson, full of braggadocio that he would have won the party election and led the party to another victory in a general election in 2024 but that he had decided to withdraw for the good of the country. Right. His suggestion that he had asked Sunak and Mordaunt to “come together in the national interest” is disingenuous. Presumably he suggested some form of power sharing among the three. But given his ego, whatever he proposed is likely to have given him primacy, at least at the beginning. But who would ever trust a liar like Johnson to keep his end of any deal?
Johnson and many of his supporters are reportedly angry with Sunak, seeing him as someone who stabbed Johnson in the back by orchestrating cabinet resignations and triggering his downfall. I would not be surprised if they are already seeking out ways to undermine Sunak to make sure that he fails and thus get Johnson back as the party leader. What should be worrying for Johnson is that Conservative-backing newspapers, once his biggest supporters, are now warning against Johnson returning as party leader. Given the clout newspapers seem to have in UK politics, that is bad news for him. Of course, the papers can switch their views if they feel the need to. In the case of Truss, they initially praised her and her budget before abruptly making an about face when things went south.
UK politics and the media are not for the fainthearted.