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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Struggling Sunak should not pander to the Tory party base

Struggling Sunak should not pander to the Tory party base

He’s trailing his rival but a zeal for culture wars won’t do any good

Racism remains an elephant in the room on Rishi Sunak’s chances  (Photo: Bloomberg)Premium
Racism remains an elephant in the room on Rishi Sunak’s chances  (Photo: Bloomberg)

The Tory contest to replace Boris Johnson as British prime minister is turning into a coronation: Johnson’s ally Liz Truss has taken a 34-point lead in the recent YouGov poll over her rival, Rishi Sunak, former chancellor of the exchequer. What explains this overwhelming Tory preference for Truss? Certainly, the great majority of the British electorate doesn’t share it. The latest Ipsos Political Monitor reveals Sunak as the public’s favourite; he is clearly the candidate that the opposition Labour Party fear most. But then, the 175,000 odd rank-and-file members of the Tory party are not known for their political wisdom. According to YouGov, 53% 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 at Downing Street. He’s made political blunders, including bragging 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 Her offer to support Britons who wanted to go fight in Ukraine had to be swiftly withdrawn by her own government.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, Truss is now threatening to tear up large parts of the Brexit agreement with the EU, 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 UK.

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 non-Caucasian.

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. Tory grassroots are even more exposed to and in tune with Britain’s 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 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 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 colour.

Instead, Sunak has taken to attacking the straw men of “left-wing 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 his new-found zeal for culture wars. Sunak is in a party whose members seem to 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.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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Published: 08 Aug 2022, 09:50 PM IST
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