Beam me up Rishi

Tory Leadership Contest II: The Wrath of Boris


Oh, the desk-banging, and the horsey cheering. And the desk-banging. I’m not often tempted to storm Britain’s palaces with a pitchfork, but the sound of 300 Tory MPs braying and thumping their desks will do it.

There was something massively and incongruously self-congratulatory about the parliamentary Conservative party on Monday afternoon. We’re on our third prime minister of the year, our fourth chancellor, and we’ve just gone through an entirely self-imposed financial crisis. But Tory MPs all sound like they’re having the time of their lives. Probably they are. Leadership plotting seems to be the only thing that gets them animated. Afterwards, they were all going for drinks on the Commons terrace. And why not?

We hadn’t heard from our incoming prime minister

The morning had been hugely enjoyable, hours of watching Tory MPs rushing to endorse Rishi Sunak while there was still time. Boris Johnson had suddenly disappeared from view, claiming that he could have won, easily, but had decided not to try. Penny Mordaunt tried her best, and claims to have come within touching distance of the 100-nomination threshold, but, just before Sir Graham Brady was going to announce the result, she issued a statement saying that she hadn’t made it. It was, of course, significantly more gracious than Johnson’s. For all the claims that his time on holiday has made him a more thoughtful and humble figure, his Sunday evening statement suggests he is as much of a petulant man-child as he ever was.

And so to the desk-banging. In fairness, the appointment of Rishi Sunak as leader and prime minister-in-waiting was, for a lot of Tory MPs, an unexpected and huge relief. People who six long weeks ago thought they’d never see the inside of a ministerial car again now glimpse a future bright with possibility, at least as far as they personally are concerned.

Even Matt Hancock must have felt that opportunity was knocking. Probably he sees in Sunak a kindred spirit, a fellow careerist. As MPs waited outside Conservative Central Office to clap their new leader in, Hancock made sure he was in the front row. Sunak came out from the car. There was a hug for John Glen, a hug for Mel Stride, and — what’s that? — not even a handshake for poor old Matt. Maybe he’ll have better luck with the next Tory leader. There’s sure to be one along soon.

The oddity to the day was that we hadn’t heard from our incoming prime minister. In fact, he didn’t seem to have spoken a word in public since the start of September. Finally he popped up, and we worked out why they’d been keeping him away from the cameras.

It was a brief statement, throughout which he stared at a point just off camera, giving the impression to the viewer that he was looking over your left shoulder, hoping to catch the eye of someone more interesting who was standing behind you.

He opened by paying tribute to Liz Truss “who has led with dignity and grace through a time of great change”. Or, as the rest of us call it, “September”. His delivery was awkward, as though he had read about public speaking in a book, with frequent random pauses. “I am,” he said. “Humbled. And honoured. To have the support of my parliamentary colleagues. And to be elected as leader. Of the Conservative. And Unionist Party!”

Sunak is a paradox

A couple of weeks ago I watched a robot speaking in parliament and concluded that humans didn’t have anything to worry about just yet. Watching Sunak address the nation, or at least the person standing behind the nation, the feeling was that it was the robots that can relax. The voice was full of expression, the face animated, but the effect oddly unconvincing. “I pledge,” he finished. “That I will serve you. With integrity. And humility. And I will work. Day in. Day out. To deliver. For the British people.”

Having reached the end, he didn’t seem to know what to do, so he just gazed soulfully at us, or people near us, for just long enough to make everyone feel uncomfortable, and then shuffled off. And this, we thought to ourselves, was the slick one in the contest.

Sunak is a paradox: the thing he’s famous for, Covid furlough, he seems largely to have hated. He’s fixed in people’s minds as The Guy Who Gave Everyone Cash When They Needed It, but that’s really not his self-image. He’s spent a lot of time since the pandemic trying to imply that he would have preferred not to have lockdowns. That he’s come to be seen as a centrist candidate reflects much more on the rest of the field than his own position, which is well to the right of, say, the Conservative Party of 2015.

But we should not understate the historic significance of the moment. A lot of people wondered if someone like him could ever become prime minister, but today we know that, with persistence and a bit of luck, Number 10 is a place that can be home to a boy who went to Winchester.

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