Truss vs Sunak, the tale of the tape

Boris Johnson may be on the ropes but can Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak measure up as future leadership contenders. Dave Kellaway checks out the stats.


Westminister is abuzz with Tory ministers having discreet discussions with Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak about what positions they might get in exchange for their support. Whether Johnson is destroyed by the Sue Gray report this week or not he will face an ongoing leadership challenge. Some Tory MPs, much to the anger of their councillor colleagues, are suggesting it would be better to dump him after a clear electoral test like the May local elections.

Commentators are divided on how far they think Johnson will fight to keep what he has called his ‘king of the world’ status. Some quote his remarks to friends about how tedious and poorly paid the job is while others say he will leave scratch marks on Number Ten’s paintwork as he is dragged away. In any case, he has less and less control over his own future. Operation Red Meat with its racist proposal to dump migrants in Ghana, the plans to use the Navy to push migrant boats back to France or the attack on the publicly-owned BBC have not taken ‘partygate‘ off the front pages or calmed his rebellious MPs. 

His only chances lie in the disunity of the factions contending to replace him, a failure of contenders to move decisively or some major event such as a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Even in those circumstances, it may only be a temporary reprieve.

Many pundits have responded to the current crisis by commenting on how far the Tory party and its government have fundamentally changed the moral framework and weakened institutional standards.  They have correctly linked this shift to Johnson’s reactionary Brexit project. We have talked about the ‘Ukipisation’ or even ‘creeping fascism’ in relation to this process. Certainly, the draconian anti-democratic measures that the Lords voted down in the Policing bill exemplify what is happening. 

However, we should not rewrite history in pretending that pre-Brexit, pre-Johnson Tory governments were all sweetness and light. Cameron and Osborne’s post-2008 crash austerity policies resulted in around 57,000 needless deaths according to research from the University of York.

Neither should we get euphoric over the likely demise of Boris Johnson. He has up to recently ridden the reactionary populist trends relatively skilfully but it is the majority of his party that has adopted a racist Brexit, neo-liberal economic policies, restrictions on democratic rights and the culture wars offensive. Removing its architect will not mean a collapse of the building. Aditya Chakrabortty has made this point eloquently in the Guardian recently.

The following ‘tale of the tape’ looking at the politics of the main two contenders to replace Johnson shows that neither candidate is likely to make a break with this government’s anti-working class policies.  Either winner may want to rejuvenate or rebrand the Tories but their margin for manoeuvre is limited by a capitalist class unwilling to sacrifice its profits to pay for a real levelling up to end poverty and provide secure well paid work or finance an effective green transition.

Liz Truss Rishi Sunak
Age 4641
EducationRoundhay, Leeds comprehensive Winchester (private)
Elected MP20102015
Ministerial experience Junior minister in 2012, later in charge of trade, now Foreign Secretary.Local government junior minister under May, then Chief Secretary at Treasury and replaced Sajiv as Chancellor.
SoundbitesOnce they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world” from Britannia Unchained which she co-authored We import two-thirds of our cheese: That! Is! A! Disgrace! We reject the illiberalism of cancel culture, and we reject the soft bigotry of low expectations that holds so many people back”.[121]Having a lower tax, simpler, fairer, flatter tax system is something that can drive growth From working in my mum’s tiny chemist shop to my experience building large businesses, I have seen how we should support free enterprise and innovation to ensure Britain has a stronger future.
Social media savvy?Uses Instagram.Commissioned a company to organise his image.
How rich?Not as super-rich as S but according to Networth she is worth about £1.5 million.By far one of the wealthiest ministers, his partner is the super-rich daughter of Infosys Indian multinational. They have a £1.7 billion shareholding.
AdvantagesHas five years more political experience than S. Has shown some agile repositioning and understanding of how the Tory party was shifting right. Pushes all the Margaret Thatcher tribute band buttons which go down well with the Tory world. A Ukraine war would no doubt propel her centre stage and boost her national profile. She has already made a public statement from Australia. More ideological than S, co-author of the hard-right neoliberal Britannia Unchained. Expressed views on a wider range of topics such as education and culture wars.Seen as supporting jobs and business through Covid with furlough, business grants and Eat Out to Help Out.  It may have led to more infections and deaths but did his personal profile with the public no harm. Maybe better able to be the serious managerial alternative to Johnson. If Johnson hangs on till then the March budget gives him a big national platform. Less ‘ideological’ than T so may find it easier to build an alliance with the non-Brexit wing of the party, for example, if Hunt ran and dropped out he might be able to pull off some alliance with him.
DisadvantagesDid she go too early? The fizz for Liz meetups has been going on for 3 months. Early favourites and runners often do not win these contests. Has changed position e.g on Brexit to keep in with whoever is the leader. Not taken a bit for her beliefs Risk of her being seen as Johnson Mark 2 if there is a need to rebrand the party  Directly responsible for the NI increase and the cost of living hits will be linked more to his role. How the economy performs will hurt or help him. Less experienced than T and up to now has not been tested since he has been able to play the ‘generous chancellor’ He has an interest in an early contest before the cost of living crisis really hits.  
Brexit barometerTruss backed remain in the 2016 referendum, speaking about not wanting her own daughters to “need a visa or permit to work in Europe, or where they are hampered from growing a business because of extortionate call costs and barriers to trade”. But a rapid flip flop and her flag-waving trade deals have endeared her to the Brexiteers.Voted leave but unlike hard Brexiteers also voted three times for May’s agreement. Immediately supported Johnson, writing a support piece in the Times along with Rabb and Kwarteng.
MPs like?Not built up an organised following among MPs Risk of her being seen as Johnson Mark 2 if there is a need to rebrand the party Intimated that she was critical of the NI increase which is the opinion of many Tory MPs.Neither has he built up an organised following in the Parliamentary party Rishi less seen as changing allegiances. Still a relative newcomer, MPs may feel he is untested and a risk. Could lack the decisiveness of Truss in making the first move.
Party members like?Most popular in polls on the Conservative Home site Her flag-waving and new Brexit trade dealing goes down wellHas slight lead if you look at polls by Opinion
General Public like?Less well known than S – 23rd best known Tory politician among voters. Although this has probably changed recently.Eat Out plus furlough helped but was less popular than he was. Risks being seen as the one leading attack on living standards
Mass media like?Friendly but also repeating some of the Johsonesque type quirkiness such as the cheese speech. Comes across as less serious than S.So far has been helped a lot by compliant media – the Dishy Rishi angle and relaying his carefully controlling messaging. Business press like him.
Eco-credibilityShe took swipes at environmental regulation, the banning of plastic straws and cups, with digs at enjoying “the warm glow of wood-burning Goves” when her colleague Michael Gove was at the environment department.Said to counterpose needs of the economy (profits) versus net-zero and sceptical of some of Johnson’s newfound environmental concerns.
Current bookie’s odds (Oddschecker)49/1039/19

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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