This time round Mr Sunak might fulfil David Cameron’s 2015 promise to Narendra Modi in London’s packed Wembley Stadium
Prescient British opinion-makers stopped speaking of a Diwali deadline for the proposed free trade agreement with India long before Prime Minister Liz Truss dropped her bombshell. Like Solomon Grundy of the nursery rhyme who was born on a Monday and buried on Sunday (“That was the end Of Solomon Grundy”), Britain’s shortest-lived Prime Minister brought her 45-day tenure to an ignominious end the day after boasting “I am a fighter and not a quitter”.
Far from being respected for the radical new era of economic growth she had promised, Ms Truss will be remembered for her many U-turns, her political and economic blunders, and the free fall of the sterling and equity. It may also be recognised one day that her catastrophic tenure quietly acknowledged the truth of the saying attributed to the greatest Tory of them all, Benjamin Disraeli, that “God works by Races”. To put it more bluntly, Ms Truss’ choice as Prime Minister may have been a manifestation of the once popular, now deemed politically incorrect, slogan “Keep Britain White”.
More of that later. Politicians are too busy now scrambling for the 100 votes a candidate needs to qualify for what former PM Boris Johnson called “the best job in the world” to spare a thought for something as mundane as an FTA. It was Mr Johnson’s resignation in July (he actually left in September, after the long-drawn Tory leadership election) amidst a maelstrom of scandals that started the crisis. Since the Conservative Party still enjoys a majority in the House of Commons, all it needed to do then -- and needs to do again now -- is choose a new leader who will automatically qualify for free lodging at 10 Downing Street as Britain’s fifth PM in six years.
Thus has the fate of a nation that once ruled half the globe been trivialised. As a caller told a radio phone-in programme: “And we got rid of Boris for a couple of drinks and a bit of birthday cake?!” He was referring to Mr Johnson lying about government office parties that broke the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown rules and also perhaps recent disclosures that Mr Johnson knew about sexual misconduct allegations against a Conservative MP whom he promoted.
After the starting point of the votes of 100 Conservative MPs, the winner must win two votes in Parliament and finally muster a majority of the 160,000 or so Conservative Party members up and down the country. That procedural technicality has reduced Britain’s future (with ramifications for Europe’s destiny, America’s global leadership role, tensions with China and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine) to an internal matter for a handful of Conservatives, many of them elderly blue-rinsed women in pearls and twin sets presiding over country tennis parties.
The first hat in the ring was that of 49-year-old Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House and a superb orator who entered the contest to succeed Mr Johnson in 2022, but was eliminated in the final round. But Mr Johnson and the former chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, are also in the race with, possibly, Suella Braverman, also ethnic Indian and recently home secretary under Ms Truss, following.
For now, Mr Sunak seems to be the favourite. He has already secured the support of the required 100 MPs, and even got the backing of Pakistani-origin former chancellor and health minister Sajid Javid. Mr Sunak and Mr Javid are both brown. As another phone-in caller said: “If Rishi had been white, he would have been selected last time. Tory party members didn’t want a brown man!” Asked if he was accusing Britain’s ruling party of being racist, the caller replied: “I’m sorry to say yes!”
Multi-racial Britain whose capital was dubbed “Londonistan has plenty of Asian and African MPs to prove it has left behind the bigotry that prompted Lord Salisbury to wonder when Dadabhoy Naoroji sought a parliamentary seat whether British voters “would elect a black man”. The grim “rivers of blood” warning against Afro-Asian immigration by another Conservative politician, Enoch Powell, was even more far-fetched. After all, Mr Johnson’s floppy straw blond hair is ostentatiously Caucasian despite the Turkish roots that prompted Ankara newspapers to dub him the “Ottoman grandson”.
But as Disraeli wrote, “all is race”. Priti Patel, the Tory home secretary from 2019 to 2022, and Ms Braverman are seen as stridently opposed to Afro-Asian immigration. It is conceivable that sensing the mood of grassroots Conservatives, they seek political acceptance by being more loyal than the king. “I have concerns about having an open borders migration policy with India because I don’t think that’s what people voted for with Brexit”, Ms Braverman told a magazine, opposing her then boss, Ms Truss, who was keen on the FTA.
Ms Braverman even seems critical of the visa flexibility for students and entrepreneurs under the Migration and Mobility Partnership that Ms Patel and external affairs minister S. Jaishankar endorsed last year.
Since Ms Braverman complains that “the largest group of people who overstay are Indian migrants”, if she does contest, she can expect support at least from the 160,000 countrywide Conservatives.
Not that race is Mr Sunak’s only handicap. Some Conservatives see him as the leader who rescued Britain from the Covid-19 pandemic, but others think he stabbed Mr Johnson in the back by resigning when he did. No one denies the financial acumen of the former Goldman Sachs analyst who became chancellor of the exchequer at 39 and warned well in advance that Ms Truss’ tax cuts would cause a jump in borrowing costs. In fact, he is regarded as too savvy, if anything. The American green card he has now surrendered, his wife Akshata’s immense inherited wealth and her “nom-dom” status, allowing her to enjoy all the benefits of living in Britain while paying very little in British taxes because the bulk, if not all, of her income is earned abroad, are all signs of a cleverness that the British are wary of.
But with the Conservatives all but facing annihilation in the next general election according to opinion polls, Mr Sunak seems to be the only possible saviour. “He has the plan & credibility to restore financial stability, help get inflation down & deliver sustainable tax cuts over time; and unite the Conservatives by bringing the best talent into govt to deliver for the British people,” former deputy PM Dominic Raab said on Twitter. This time round Mr Sunak might fulfil David Cameron’s 2015 promise to Narendra Modi in London’s packed Wembley Stadium: “It won’t be long before there is a British-Indian Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street”.