Stumbling Sunak should not flatter the conservative base

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The Tory contest to replace Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister is turning into a crowning glory: Johnson’s ally Liz Truss took a massive 34-point lead in the recent YouGov poll over her rival, Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

What explains this overwhelming preference of curators for Truss? Admittedly, the vast majority of the British electorate does not share it. Latest Ipsos Political Monitor Reveals Sunak as Audience Favourite; he is clearly the candidate the opposition Labor Party fears most.

But the Conservative Party’s roughly 175,000 rank-and-file members are not known for their political wisdom or moral discernment. According to YouGov, 53% of these hard Brexiteers still prefer Johnson to Truss or Sunak, and 75% support Johnson’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.

It’s true that Sunak, educated at Winchester, Oxford and Stanford, and married to a wealthy Indian heiress, tries too hard to show his common touch, wearing, for example, a hoodie over a shirt and tie. His image was not helped by revelations that his wife paid no UK tax on his international earnings and that he himself held a US green card while working in Downing Street. He has made political mistakes, including recently bragging about diverting public funds from poor urban areas.

Still, Sunak’s flaws pale in comparison to Truss’s. Rich in bold rhetoric and short on intellectual gravitas, Britain’s next prime minister appears to be an English-accented Sarah Palin. As foreign minister, she didn’t seem to know that the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea were two separate bodies of water. His offer to support the British who wanted to go to fight in Ukraine had to be quickly withdrawn by his own government.

His most insightful statement so far seems to be: “I want to ride the zeitgeist to where it all happens.” So she surfed alongside the Tory Remainers when they were in power, then passed her surfboard to the Brexiteers after the latter won the referendum in 2016.

As a born-again Brexiteer, she now threatens to tear up large swathes of the Brexit deal with the European Union, risking a trade war. His personal attacks on Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon can only hasten Scottish moves towards an independence referendum and the dreaded break-up of the UK.

Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, says Truss was “as close to the crackers as anyone I’ve met in Parliament”. By any measure, Sunak is the superior candidate, as recognized by his own party greats. In public debates, he blithely dismantled Truss’s inconsistent economic plan.

To conservative stalwarts, however, Sunak seems almost too rational — and surprisingly non-white.

Xenophobia has long entered the political mainstream in England. Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor, had to overcome claims by Tory leaders that he would embolden terrorists.

The Conservative Party base is even more exposed and in tune with Britain’s predominantly right-wing media. It would be surprising if crude prejudices did not at least partly determine their political choices.

Sunak supporters told The Times of London last month that their candidate had experienced a “little bit of latent racism” from party members. One reportedly said, “I’m not ready for brown yet.” Sunak himself joked that he was complimented on his “beautiful tan” during the election campaign.

The light remark of course hides a very inconvenient reality for Sunak. Like many children of socially mobile and economically successful immigrants, he chose to align himself with a party that protects the interests of the rich and powerful. Yet he could hardly ignore his contribution to racism. He admitted in a 2020 interview that racist abuse “stings in a way that very few other things have”.

Trailing a clearly incompetent candidate, he could win over more liberal conservatives by pointing to his humble origins as the hard-working son of Indian immigrants; he could insist that Britain is an irreversibly pluralistic society. Expanding the political and moral horizons of his electorate would hardly assure his victory, but it would facilitate struggles for racial equality and the dignity of other Britons of color.

Instead, Sunak has taken to attacking the front men of “left-wing agitators” who are clearly destroying “our history, our traditions and our core values”. Last week he proposed radically broadening the definition of Islamist terrorism and focusing on “eradicating those who express their hatred of our country”.

There is something both pathetic and tragic about this new zeal for culture wars. Sunak finds himself, a highly educated technocrat, in a party whose members increasingly prefer fantasies as leaders. Yet by responding to the lowest common denominator of British politics, he makes it harder for people like him to thrive, let alone rise to the top.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Union Bashing will not win for the Conservatives: Thérèse Raphaël

• Eeyore Bank grumbles the truth. Who’s next ? : John Authers

• Labor cannot rely on Tories to self-destruct: Martin Ivens

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author, most recently, of “Run and Hide”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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