The Tory contest to replace Boris Johnson as British prime minister is turning into a coronation: Johnson’s ally Liz Truss has taken a massive, 34-point lead in the recent YouGov poll over her rival, Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the exchequer.
But then the approximately 175,000 rank-and-file members of the Tory Party are not known for their political wisdom or moral discernment. According to YouGov, 53% percent of these hard Brexiteers still prefer Johnson over either Truss or Sunak, and 75% support Johnson’s policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.
It is true that Sunak, educated at Winchester, Oxford and Stanford, and married to a rich Indian heiress, tries too hard to show his common touch, wearing, for instance, a hoodie over shirt and tie. His image was not helped by revelations that his wife didn’t pay UK tax on her international income and that he himself held a US green card while working in Downing Street. He’s made political blunders, including bragging recently about diverting government funds from poor urban areas.
Still, Sunak’s flaws pale in comparison to Truss’s. High on audacious rhetoric and short on intellectual gravitas, Britain’s likely next prime minister comes across as an English-accented Sarah Palin. As foreign secretary, she did not seem to know that the Baltic and Black Seas were two separate bodies of water. Her offer to support Britons who wanted to go fight in Ukraine had to be swiftly withdrawn by her own government.
Her most insightful assertion thus far seems to be, “I want to surf the zeitgeist to where it’s all happening.” Accordingly, she surfed on the side of Tory Remainers when they were in power, then took her surfboard over to the Brexiteers after the latter won the referendum in 2016.
As a born-again Brexiteer, she is now threatening to tear up large parts of the Brexit agreement with the European Union, at the risk of igniting a trade war. Her personal attacks on Scotland’s leader Nicola Sturgeon can only accelerate Scottish moves toward an independence referendum and the much-feared breakup of the United Kingdom.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, claims that Truss was “as close to properly crackers as anybody I have met in Parliament.” By any measure, Sunak is the superior candidate, as is recognized by his own party’s grandees. In public debates, he has briskly dismantled Truss’s incoherent economic plan.
In the eyes of Tory faithful, however, Sunak seems almost too rational — and disconcertingly non-white.
Xenophobia long ago entered the political mainstream in England. Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London, had to overcome allegations from Tory leaders that he would embolden terrorists.
The Tory Party’s grassroots are even more exposed to, and in tune with, Britain’s overwhelmingly right-wing media. It would be surprising if crude prejudice didn’t at least partly determine their political choices.
Sunak’s supporters told the Times of London last month that their candidate was a victim of a “bit of latent racism” from party members. One was reported as saying, “I’m not ready for the brown one yet.” Sunak himself joked about being complimented for his “great tan” on the campaign trail.
The light-hearted remark of course hides a very awkward reality for Sunak. Like many socially mobile and economically successful children of immigrants, he has chosen to align himself with a party that protects the interests of the rich and powerful. Yet he could hardly be unaware of its contribution to racism. He admitted in an interview in 2020 that racist abuse “stings in a way that very few other things have.”
Trailing behind an obviously inept candidate, he could appeal to more liberal-minded Tories by underscoring his modest origins as the hardworking son of Indian immigrants; he could insist that Britain is an irreversibly pluralistic society. Broadening the political and moral horizons of his electorate would hardly ensure his victory but it would make easier the struggles for racial equality and dignity of other British people of color.
Instead, Sunak has taken to attacking the straw men of “leftwing agitators” who are evidently bulldozing “our history, our traditions and our fundamental values.” Last week, he proposed to radically expand the definition of Islamist terrorism and focus on “rooting out those who are vocal in their hatred of our country.”
There is something both pathetic and tragic about such newfound zeal for culture wars. Sunak finds himself, a highly educated technocrat, in a party whose members increasingly prefer fantasists as leaders. Yet by catering to the lowest common denominator of British politics, he is making it more arduous for people like him to thrive, let alone rise to the top.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Union Bashing Won’t Win It for the Tories: Therese Raphael
• The Bank of Eeyore Grumbles the Truth. Who’s Next?: John Authers
• Labour Can’t Rely on the Tories to Self-Destruct: Martin Ivens
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is author, most recently, of “Run and Hide.”
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