By Max Ghose
No I’m not delusional. The campaign is over. The bookies have stopped taking bets. It’s a foregone conclusion that tomorrow Liz Truss walks into Downing Street as our next Prime Minister. Yet on the eve of the Truss premiership, I can’t help but think the wrong choice has been made.
Yes, Rishi Sunak is not the best politician to have ever graced this country. In a grown-up political system it wouldn’t have been normal for him to be elected an MP, then appointed Chancellor and (for a moment) Prime Minister-in-waiting all within 7 years and before his 42nd birthday.
Despite an 80-seat majority and 12 years in government, recent leadership elections have proved the upper echelons of the Conservative Party are so bereft of quality. With Cabinet members like Nadine Dorries, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Suella Braverman, it is no surprise there is a severe deficit of talent at the heart of government.
Of course, this didn’t just happen overnight and there are many to blame. Boris Johnson’s cabinet room was the antithesis of a ‘team of rivals’, the vast majority promoted to their positions because of perceived loyalty to the boss and not much else. Theresa May’s team was of higher quality but too often paralysed by the constant infighting of the Brexit dividing line. In fact, the second rate leadership of the party goes back to David Cameron’s 2014 reshuffle. Serious, competent ministers like Dominic Grieve, William Hague and Ken Clarke left or were booted out of Cabinet in favour of so-called young blood. This is when Lizz Truss entered Cabinet.
Despite the public gaffes – the 2014 cheese and pork speech comes to mind – Truss is certainly no fool. She’s determined, ambitious (often openly so) and on certain policies – like the housing crisis – even trumps Sunak. The stories of her roundly beating an attempted deselection after the Mark Field affair and her ability to bounce back after her 2017 demotion do show at least some political skill.
Yet this political manoeuvring has consequences. Staying ‘loyal’ to Boris Johnson, rapidly changing her mind on Europe and embracing the hard right of the party has led the Remain-supporting Truss to some less than reputable associates.
To her credit it’s paid off. She’s finally got every ambitious MP’s ultimate prize: the keys to Number 10. In a way I actually respect her. But what I’m truly worried about is the friends she’s made along the way.
While this is all speculation, names like Kemi Badenoch as Education Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg as Business Secretary or Suella Braverman at the Home Office do not spark confidence. While I’m more optimistic about Chancellor-in-waiting Kwasi Kwarteng and the roles Ben Wallace and Tom Tugendhat hopefully receive, they will be the exception not the rule.
The Britain of 2022 is a crisis-ridden nation. We desperately need the return of strong cabinet government to both facilitate and challenge the Prime Minister. After 2 months of government paralysis, we need a strong team ready and able to take the reigns on Ukraine, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the impending devastation the cost of living crisis will wreck throughout winter.
We are in the thick of it. A Lizz Truss premiership is not going to produce a cabinet of sufficient quality to steer this country through.
So what does this have to do with Rishi Sunak? Well, thanks to the aforementioned talent problem, Sunak is one of the best options the Conservative Party have. I won’t recite his CV of competent, sensible government – the last 8-week barrage of leadership electioneering has done that for me. What I will say is that when your options are so limited and the road ahead paved with difficulties, Sunak deserves an olive branch his way. He may not accept a role that is bound to be a demotion from Chancellor, but it would certainly be to Truss’, the party’s and the country’s benefit if he did.
Whether he’s in the next Cabinet or on the backbenches, in a party presently devoid of talent, Sunak has to stay.
And who knows, the next leadership election may be only around the corner.