Why Rishi Sunak’s Tory leadership campaign is failing

Rishi Sunak - Peter Nicholls/Getty Images Europe
Rishi Sunak - Peter Nicholls/Getty Images Europe

For a man whose campaign was built on the inevitability of victory, Rishi Sunak could hardly be further from his goal. Three weeks into the Conservative leadership race, polling suggests that Liz Truss, his opponent, is almost out of sight.

Mr Sunak’s team unquestionably overestimated his popularity with Conservative Party members and underestimated that of Ms Truss.

It remains possible that the former chancellor could yet turn the tables – but even his supporters think that unlikely, barring an unexpected trip-up by the Foreign Secretary.

Seasoned political campaigners say the reasons why the Sunak campaign has been such a flop – and there are many – have been obvious from the start.

Some believe his campaign was always going to be dead on arrival thanks to his recent track record in government and his “backstabbing” of Boris Johnson, but others think he could have been ahead by now if he had “got his messaging right”.

All agree that his about-turn on VAT cuts this week was a sign of panic and might have snuffed out the sputtering candle of his leadership bid.

“Quite simply, he is fighting the wrong election,” said one veteran of multiple Tory leadership campaigns. “You only ever deal with the electorate that is in front of you, not the next one.

“They are running the campaign as if they are fighting a general election, but they have to win this one first and it’s a very different electorate.”

Even the fact that Mr Sunak chose not to wear a tie for TV debates has been seen as a sign that he was trying to appeal to the general public rather than Tory members, who prefer their leaders more buttoned-up.

Accusations that Team Sunak does not understand the Tory membership crop up over and over again among MPs and strategists. Some blame Liam Booth-Smith, his former chief of staff at the Treasury and the keystone of his campaign team, for failing to make sure his boss is fully connected with members’ views.

Others blame Mel Stride MP, his campaign manager. Many blame Mr Sunak himself.

“He has a very safe seat in Yorkshire where he can have barbecues for friendly Tory types in the garden of his mansion,” said one MP. “He hasn’t spent enough time going up and down the country finding out what members really think, whereas Liz Truss does seem to grasp what the membership wants.” Such as tax cuts.

Another catastrophic miscalculation by the Sunak campaign has been the backlash against him for his pivotal role in bringing down Mr Johnson.

“Rishi and his team seemed to think that he would be hailed a hero for resigning and getting rid of Boris,” said another Tory MP. “They thought Liz Truss would be tainted by standing by Boris. But the membership hates back-stabbers – as Michael Gove found out – and values loyalty, and Truss made the right decision to stay on because a lot of the members still prefer Boris to either of them.”

Whether Mr Sunak could have done any better is open to debate. Those who have flocked to Ms Truss’s side believe his campaign was always doomed because of his high-tax policies as chancellor, but there are impartial observers who believe he could have been in pole position now.

“He had the best-prepared campaign and his team have been tooling up for months,” said one political strategist. “They had a big head start – but they had the wrong message, and if you have the wrong message it doesn’t matter how slick your campaign might be.

“Their message was: you might not love my economics but it’s successful so stick with me and we will be OK. And for people who didn’t agree with that, the second part of the strategy was: I’m a winner, I’m the one who can win the next election.

“Instead, they should have been selling the fact that he has promised tax cuts before the next election, that he is the one who spent £37 billion on handouts to help with energy bills, and that there would be more to come.”

Those looking from the outside in are also baffled by Mr Sunak’s decision earlier this week to promise to scrap VAT on energy bills for a year if he became PM – a measure he had opposed when it was suggested by Mr Johnson earlier this year.

“If you ask anyone who has run a successful political campaign, they will tell you that you never deviate from the core message,” said the strategist. “Dominic Cummings knows that, Alistair Campbell knows that. You set out your stall and you stick to it.

“Attacking Liz on the numbers could have cut through. They should have gone out every day and said her numbers don’t add up, they should have sharpened that message, hammered away at it relentlessly and made people doubt her credibility.

“But they have lost their nerve in a big way by saying they might cut VAT. That is a campaign in trouble. It’s out of their hands now, because they can’t criticise Liz on fairytale economics any more.”

At the start of the leadership campaign, members of Mr Sunak’s team told The Telegraph that they wanted to create an inevitability about his eventual victory. That, too, has backfired.

“There is an arrogance and an assumption that he would glide through,” said one Whitehall source. “Members pick up on that. The fact that the campaign website was registered in December, all that putting his signature on stuff, it annoyed a lot of people.”

Mr Sunak’s social media campaign is the remit of Cass Horowitz, the 31-year-old son of the author Anthony, who is credited with polishing up Mr Sunak’s image when he was chancellor and producing his slick campaign launch video.

“The slickness is a problem,” said a source who backed one of the unsuccessful candidates in the earlier rounds of the contest. “If you’re spending all your time worrying about camera angles and faffing around on Instagram, you’re not focusing on the important stuff.”

One of the key planks of the “inevitability of success” strategy was to get more than half of Tory MPs to publicly back Mr Sunak, proving to members that he could unite the party.

With three former chief whips on board – Gavin Williamson, Mark Harper and Mark Spencer – Mr Sunak was expected to come out of the gate with around 130 MPs backing him in the first round of voting, but only managed to get to 137 when the field had been whittled down to three, meaning fewer than four in 10 MPs were on his side.

Some MPs believe the figure would have been even lower, and that he might not have made it to the final two, had it not been for Mr Williamson “working his magic and convincing a lot of MPs the Rishi train was unstoppable”, meaning they needed to back him if they wanted jobs in a future Sunak government.

With many MPs undeclared, increasing numbers, such as Ben Wallace, are now backing Ms Truss and not Mr Sunak because she has the momentum and they are convinced she will win.

A lack of humility has also characterised the Sunak campaign: “A lot of his advisers still see him as the golden boy who did furlough and was the most popular member of the government for a while,” said a Whitehall source.

“Some of the people around him can’t see anything other than ‘he’s great’, which is why they came up with that ‘Ready for Rishi’ slogan. What does that even mean? It suggests that people need to get ready for him as PM because he’s already won, and people don’t like that sense of entitlement.”

Mr Sunak lost the support of some Tory members by interrupting Ms Truss more than 20 times in 12 minutes during the BBC head-to-head hustings event – a trait that should have been ironed out by his team in their exhaustive rehearsal sessions.

One Tory source who knows him well said: “He is a calm and smiling character on the outside, but there is an angry and arrogant man waiting to break out – and we saw flashes of that in the TV debate.

“Liz has been around longer, she has been the butt of jokes, she has been the punchline on Have I Got News For You, and she has developed a thicker skin.”

Mr Sunak, of course, was once hailed as the new face of the Right by none other than Ms Truss. He has now veered so much to the centre that he has been compared to a socialist. Tory members could be forgiven for wondering which is the real Mr Sunak.

“I think his Right-wing credentials were always exaggerated,” said one minister who has worked with him. “He is ultimately very much an establishment figure. He supported Brexit but then did absolutely nothing about it. It was a play for the Right rather than something he wanted to go up and down the country championing.

“It’s very much the old Cameroons who are behind him, and that makes sense because he represents their view of the world.”

Others say Mr Sunak was ensnared by the “Treasury orthodoxy” in the three years he spent as chief secretary to the Treasury and then chancellor.

“Very few chancellors are able to stand up to Treasury orthodoxy,” said a senior Conservative source. “Most chancellors go along with it, and that is the trap that Rishi Sunak fell into.

“That’s why he reversed the corporation tax cut. It damaged his reputation with the Right, who thought he might as well be the permanent secretary of the Treasury as chancellor. I’m not sure he was ever going to recover from that.”

It is striking that most of his campaign team worked with him in the Treasury, and his campaign manager Mr Stride is a former Treasury minister, giving them a somewhat narrow world view.

“Rishi is a banker and a former chancellor surrounded by Treasury people, whereas Liz is a pure politician,” said the PR strategist.

“Rishi will look at data and decide that people are still able to pay their bills so he doesn’t need to take more action just yet, whereas Liz understands that it’s not just about numbers, it’s about how people feel. Boris understands that, Blair understood it, but Rishi doesn’t seem to.

“People who can still pay their bills and have enough money left to go on holiday might not be struggling – but they are worried about what’s coming, and Liz understands that. It affects confidence, and if you can restore confidence that goes a long way. A spreadsheet doesn’t really tell you that.”

For now, Mr Sunak needs to hope he can keep the gap small enough for him to take advantage if Ms Truss falters.

“This is probably the first time in his life he has had to confront the possibility of failure,” said one former colleague. “It will take him a long time to get over it if he loses.”