It's an added relief that Tory members didn't choose the new PM - Ian Swanson
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But Boris Johnson’s announcement on Sunday night that he was pulling out of the race must have come as a huge relief for party managers – as well as millions of people across the country. And Penny Mordaunt’s last-minute withdrawal, allowing Rishi Sunak to become prime minister, brought the contest to a quick conclusion and avoided the need to hand the final decision to Tory party members.
The prospect of Johnson returning as premier had prompted several MPs to give notice they would quit the party if he did so. And his past behaviour suggests he would have piled chaos on chaos if he were to get back into Number 10. Restoring him to power after his disgraceful record in office, which included presiding over Partygate and illegally proroguing parliament, and at a time when he is facing an inquiry into whether he misled parliament, would have been an appalling mistake.
Yet, if he had stayed in the race and it had gone to the membership to decide, the indications were that he would have been re-elected Tory leader and returned to Downing Street.
Why the rules for this latest contest were drawn up to include any possible involvement of Tory members is baffling after the Liz Truss debacle. It was always bad enough that those with the final say on the UK’s next prime minister were such a small minority of the population – less than 150,000 voted in the summer contest – and so unrepresentative: mostly males, living in southern England, more than half of them aged over 60 and 97 per cent of them white.
But after they ignored the preference of MPs for Rishi Sunak and instead elected Liz Truss, landing the country with the most unashamedly ideological right-wing government which trashed the economy and imploded within six weeks, why would anyone turn to these same people and ask them again?
Thankfully, that scenario has now been avoided. But what happens next? Britain has its first Asian prime minister, which should be welcomed. But after the numerous televised debates and extensive press coverage over the summer of the rival programmes which Sunak and Truss were advocating at that time, there has been virtual silence on what Sunak’s latest thinking is on the much worse predicament we are in now.
Despite his willingness to use public money to pay for the furlough scheme during Covid, Sunak is a self-declared Thatcherite who does not like state intervention. And his vast personal and family fortune – estimated at £730 million – make it difficult to see him as someone who understands the plight of people struggling on benefits, pensions or poor wages in a cost of living crisis.
The new prime minister was always more polished and plausible than the woman who defeated him in the summer leadership contest. But Truss’s disastrous premiership – the shortest in British history – has destroyed the Tories’ reputation as good managers of the economy. Sunak has his work cut out to claw back a shred of credibility for the party.