Is Rishi Sunak going to be Prime Minister? Ex-Chancellor’s Tory party leadership prospects as Liz Truss quits

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Rishi Sunak faces major competition from former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt

Liz Truss’s resignation as Prime Minister after just 45 days brought to an end not only the shortest term in office in UK political history, but also one of the most turbulent

In falling on her sword, Truss has fired the starting gun on yet another Conservative leadership battle. Over the next week, we can expect major intrigue as a likely trio of Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson scrap over who should be the next PM.

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It would mark a quicker-than-expected comeback for Rishi Sunak, whose non-appearance at Conservative Party Conference and general vow of silence since September has loomed large over widening divides among the Conservatives. But could Sunak actually win the leadership vote? Here’s what you need to know.

Could Rishi Sunak become the next Conservative Prime Minister? His prospects are mixed (image: Getty Images)Could Rishi Sunak become the next Conservative Prime Minister? His prospects are mixed (image: Getty Images)
Could Rishi Sunak become the next Conservative Prime Minister? His prospects are mixed (image: Getty Images) | Getty Images

Where is Rishi Sunak?

Rishi Sunak’s whereabouts has been the topic of much discussion since he was beaten by Liz Truss in the Tory leadership election that followed Boris Johnson’s resignation.

The former Chancellor largely disappeared from public view after securing 42.6% of the Conservative membership vote to Liz truss’s 57%. Despite insisting he would support Liz Truss, the man himself has been completely silent.

On 7 September - two days after losing to Truss - Sunak held a party to thank his supporters for their efforts. But other than expressing his condolences for the Queen and appearing at the London premiere for the new Matilda film in early October, he has kept himself away from the spotlight.

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Rishi Sunak made a surprise appearance with his daughter at the premiere of Matilda (image: Getty Images)Rishi Sunak made a surprise appearance with his daughter at the premiere of Matilda (image: Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak made a surprise appearance with his daughter at the premiere of Matilda (image: Getty Images) | Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images f

During the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, a Sunak ally told The Times that he was in the £2 million mansion he owns in his Yorkshire constituency near the town of Northallerton. The anonymous source said he wanted to “give Truss all the space she needs to own the moment”.

Despite Liz Truss resigning, Rishi Sunak is yet to speak publicly about what his next move will be. But it is widely expected he will throw his hat into the ring for the Conservative leadership.

Is Rishi Sunak going to be Prime Minister?

Rishi Sunak is tipped to be a part of the quick-fire contest to determine who will replace Liz Truss as Prime Minister. At present, it appears that his biggest rivals for the top job will be his former boss Boris Johnson and fellow former leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt.

NationalWorld has put together some of the reasons why he may or may not succeed this time.

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  • Popularity in Conservative Party

Pro: Despite losing the last Conservative leadership election, Sunak actually received the backing of more MPs than Liz Truss - securing 137 votes (38% of Tory MPs) to her 113 (31.5%). It means he is much more likely to get on the ballot paper than his other rivals.

Con: While he would command respect among more Conservative MPs than Truss, there is a significant number of MPs still loyal to Boris Johnson who blame Sunak for Johnson’s downfall. It means they are likely to take an ‘anyone but Sunak’ approach to the contest. Sunak is also not as popular among Tory members, who much prefer Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson.

Rishi Sunak predicted Liz Truss’s tax cuts would create economic turmoil (image: Getty Images)Rishi Sunak predicted Liz Truss’s tax cuts would create economic turmoil (image: Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak predicted Liz Truss’s tax cuts would create economic turmoil (image: Getty Images) | Getty Images
  • Popularity among general public

Pro: Sunak performs well among swing voters, a trait that could mean he is able to limit the damage done to the Conservative brand by the Truss administration. His correct predictions of how the economy would react to Truss’s tax cuts could also work in his favour. He is also a strong public speaker, performing well during the 2019 General Election debates and Tory leadership race.

Con: Recent research by pollster YouGov shows Sunak is mainly viewed negatively by the general public. With 55% ranking him unfavourably, the view of him is worse than it is of Mordaunt (38% view her in a bad light).

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  • Performance as Chancellor

Pro: The biggest pro Rishi Sunak can draw upon is that he didn’t crash the markets during his near-18 months as Chancellor of the Exchequer. While that sounds like a low bar, it looks like an achievement next to Liz Truss’s disastrous term in office. During his time as Chancellor, he was praised for introducing the Covid-19 pandemic furlough scheme and business support measures, like the ‘eat out to help out’ campaign.

Con: While he did not crash the economy, Sunak was slated for his reaction to the cost of living crisis, which almost always appeared to be reactive and was criticised by some for being ungenerous. After his Spring Budget, his popularity among voters tumbled. He also faced major criticism from all sides of the political spectrum for raising the rate of National Insurance in the midst of record inflation. The Conservative right-wing in particular were especially critical of the move. Perhaps the biggest charge against him is that it was under his stewardship that the economy’s growth stagnated and inflation bloomed.

Rishi Sunak’s time as Chancellor was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis (image: Getty Images) Rishi Sunak’s time as Chancellor was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis (image: Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak’s time as Chancellor was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis (image: Getty Images) | Getty Images
  • Skeletons in the closet

Pro: If the contest comes down to a shootout between Sunak and Johnson, Sunak can safely argue that he has fewer skeletons in the closet. While he faced major criticism after it emerged he held US green card status well into his tenure as Chancellor, and was also excoriated for his billionaire wife’s tax affairs, these account for little next to Boris Johnson’s implication in the Partygate scandal and his hectic private life.

Con: Unfortunately for Sunak, the revelations about his wife’s non-dom status and his own tax affairs can only be considered to be a negative asterisk against his name. Both issues contributed to a nosedive in his popularity while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Also, his ability to weather scandals is unlikely to match Boris Johnson’s. Arguably no politician in UK history has had the staying power of Johnson in the face of scandal.

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NationalWorld’s verdict

Clearly, Rishi Sunak is not a clear-cut winner given his mixed performance since moving into the general public’s consciousness in 2019. But as a known quantity in high office, a polished public speaker and a (largely) economically literate politician, he arguably stands a better chance of repairing some of the damage Truss has done to the Conservative Party’s brand than either of the other expected candidates.

His biggest problem will be healing the rifts among the Tory party in a short space of time. He has a week to convince them he can lead them into the next general election, and then only a matter months to hold everything together before facing the public vote, all against the backdrop of a major cost of living crisis and a terrible economic outlook.

To become leader and to hold on to power for the Conservatives will be a mammoth task. But if there’s anything the past 12 months have taught us, it is that anything is possible.

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