If the Tory Right can’t unite around a candidate, Rishi Sunak could be PM by default

In attempting to stop a ‘coronation’, Rishi Sunak’s rivals have effectively admitted that he is the undisputed front runner - Hollie Adams/Getty Images
In attempting to stop a ‘coronation’, Rishi Sunak’s rivals have effectively admitted that he is the undisputed front runner - Hollie Adams/Getty Images

He may have winced at the contents – but the “mucky memo” attacking Rishi Sunak, circulated among Tory MPs on Sunday, actually paid the former chancellor a huge compliment.

In attempting to stop a “coronation” by describing him as a “schoolboy” and a “liar”, his rivals have effectively admitted that the 42-year-old is the undisputed frontrunner in the Tory leadership race.

Yet with the father-of-two now considered the centre-Left candidate thanks to his controversial tax and spend approach to Covid and the cost of living crisis, to whom does the Right hand the crown?

While Mr Sunak is joined by the likes of Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and Tom Tugendhat at the more “establishment” end of the party, the pro-Brexit culture warrior faction is a more crowded field.

Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, the Chancellor, and comparative minnows Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman are already occupying that space.

There may still be declarations to come from arch Leavers Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency.

Jacob Rees-Mogg - Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters
Jacob Rees-Mogg - Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters

If the Right cannot coalesce around one candidate – as they did with Boris Johnson in 2019 – Mr Sunak could end up becoming the next prime minister by default.

As Nick Wood, a former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, explained: “The Right don’t have a preferred candidate, so they’ve got to make an assessment of the ideological points of each hopeful as well as judging their chances of winning.

“These contests are really quite simple, and the Tories have been fighting them since the dawn of time. It’s about Left versus Right, but defining where people sit on that spectrum can be quite tricky.”

Mr Wood, who has advised a number of the candidates over the years, ultimately believes it will end up being a two-horse race between Mr Sunak and Ms Truss.

“Left and Right are probably not the only terms to sum up the fight,” he added. “More nuanced are the labels Tory establishment versus Tory radicals, but in the end it comes down to much the same thing.

“I’d expect Hunt, Tugendhat and Javid to shortly to come out for Sunak, solidifying his standing as the man to beat.

“On the Right, Truss – with 13 declared backers as of today – is making most of the running. She has embraced Brexit with all the zeal of the convert and is a regular performer at the Institute of Economic Affairs, the one think tank devoted to low taxes, light regulation and shrinking the size of the sprawling modern state.”

For Ms Truss to be successful within the parliamentary party as well as with the membership, she has no choice but to be “more Brexit than Brexit”, according to Mr Wood.

She certainly needs to appear more of a Leaver than Mr Sunak who, despite voting for Brexit, has been tarred by the Treasury’s pro-Remain brush when it comes to the Government’s failure to maximise Britain’s economic opportunities outside the EU.

Conservative MPs are consequently going to need to suspend their disbelief over the Foreign Secretary’s seemingly Damascene conversion from a Remain-voting former Liberal Democrat student activist into a full-blooded Thatcherite Eurosceptic.

While competition from the likes of Ms Braverman, a former chairman of the influential European Research Group of Tory backbenchers and Ms Badenoch, who also voted to leave the EU, could initially split the vote - their backing will prove vital to Ms Truss’s campaign.

So too could the support of their fellow Brexiteers Mr Zahawi and Penny Mordaunt, who both remain dark horse candidates after a shaky start to their campaign launches.

Mr Zahawi has pledged to cut income tax by 2p in his first two years in office and vowed to scrap the corporation tax rise – but his chances have been knocked by questions over his finances after it was reported that HM Revenue and Customs is carrying out an inquiry into his tax affairs.

Ms Mordaunt, meanwhile, was forced to edit English sprinter Jonnie Peacock out of her campaign video, along with footage of Oscar Pistorius, following complaints.

Although the former defence secretary currently has short odds of 3/1 to replace Boris Johnson, making her second favourite, there are fears that her support of trans rights will count against her.

Ms Badenoch and Ms Braverman might have much longer odds, at 25/1 and 20/1 respectively, although they are regarded as more stridently Right-wing and anti-woke than their more experienced colleagues. Both are popular with the Common Sense Group of Tory backbenchers, which has almost 70 members.

If it ends up being Mr Sunak versus Ms Truss, then the consensus is that he wins the MPs’ vote – but the 200,000-strong membership is a different beast altogether.

The former chancellor may cut much more of an empathetic figure, but there are genuine concerns among the grassroots over what they regard as his rather “wet” version of conservativism.

If Ms Truss can convince the party faithful that what she lacks in affability she makes up for in ideology, she may just win over a caucus that has spent recent months crying out for more seriousness at the top of the Tory tree.