‘Psychodrama’ of Conservative leadership race has left the party hopelessly divided

Rishi Sunak will be youngest British prime minister in more than 200 years after a runaway leadership contest

New Conservative Party leader and incoming prime minister Rishi Sunak waves as he leaves the Conservative Party Headquarters after having been announced as the winner of the Conservative Party leadership contest on October 24th, 2022 in London, England.Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Almost miraculously for the British Conservative party, this leadership contest was straightforward and went along expected lines. For once, there were no nasty surprises, no Judas-like acts of betrayal, no running the gauntlet of the reactionary Tory membership.

At 2pm on Monday Rishi Sunak became the fifth leader of his party in six years, after leading the race to succeed Liz Truss from pillar to post. Only two months ago, he had to endure the indignity of seeing his clear lead among fellow Tory MPs being overturned by the party’s rank-and-file members, of whom a 57 per cent majority voted for Truss. Back in 2016, Boris Johnson found his own ambitions thwarted when Michael Gove dramatically withdrew from their joint ticket just before the deadline.

Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, arrived into Committee Room 14 in the House of Commons on Monday to make the announcement. As returning officer, he said, he had received one valid nomination by the deadline.

There would be no need for a second round and, with it, the unpredictability of a membership vote. Instead King Charles was returning to London from Sandringham to receive the new prime minister on Tuesday morning.


Even before Brady spoke, the outcome of the leadership contest was known. A few minutes before the deadline, the other remaining candidate, Penny Mordaunt, had conceded she had not acquired the backing of 100 MPs as required to continue in the race.

Rishi Sunak (centre) meeting with members of the 1922 Committee in the Houses of Parliament, London after it was announced he will become the new leader of the Conservative party. Photo: Stefan Rousseau / PA

Sunak had received public declarations of support from almost 200 of the 357 Tory MPs by the time the deadline was reached, compared to only 30 public acknowledgments for Mordaunt.

The MP for Richmond in Yorkshire had the whip hand from the start. His first attribute was that he was not Liz Truss. It was he who had predicted that her disastrous economic policies would lead to chaos. His second attribute was that he was not Boris Johnson, the flamboyant former prime minister who attempted an unlikely comeback in this race. When Sunak formally announced his bid, he presented himself as sober, rational, sensible, reliable, and professional.

Johnson’s main sell to the leadership was his popularity with the public and the fact he was the only leader who had an electoral mandate. His supporters claimed he had learned from his mistakes. But it was only a few months since he was slung out by his own parliamentary party. It was too soon for a dramatic comeback for most ex-leaders and certainly too soon for Johnson.

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Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, honed her message around her being the only candidate capable of unifying the party. However, her failure to reach the threshold showed that not sufficient numbers of the party’s MPs thought she was experienced enough, or rounded enough, for such an elevation.

There was a crucial meeting on Saturday night when Sunak travelled to Johnson’s makeshift office in Millbank. The two men had rarely spoken to each other since Johnson’s premiership crumbled and there was residual rancour between them. Johnson offered a joint ticket with him as leader. Sunak rejected it. He knew at this stage he had the majority of MPs behind him. He also believed that, in the dramatically changed circumstances since the summer, the membership would not repeat its petulance towards him a second time. Johnson’s final throw of the dice was to ask Mordaunt on Sunday to quit and back him. When she refused to do it, the game was up for him even though his team claimed he had 102 endorsements in the bag.

Mordaunt was lying a distant third at that stage but Johnson’s withdrawal gave her campaign fresh impetus. Her team began hitting the phones in a frantic effort to get from 25 endorsements to 100.

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It looked like a forlorn hope. By midmorning on Monday, however, the team claimed the numbers were “north of 90″ but three minutes before the 2pm deadline, she conceded she had not reached the threshold.

Significantly, one of her early backers, Tory MP George Freeman, dramatically withdrew his support for her at lunchtime on Monday. He said that the country needed a stable government urgently and he was now backing Sunak. It was a body blow. There were reports of one or two others peeling off.

At 42, Sunak will become the youngest prime minister in more than 200 years and is the first person of colour to be elected to that office. He is a Hindu and was elected on Diwali, one of the great festivals in the Hindu calendar. As chancellor of the exchequer he was praised for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, particularly his strategy to give state subsidies to workers who were forced to go on furlough.

Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak leaves the Conservative Central Office after it was announced by the Chair of the 1922 Committee that he will become the new leader of the Conservative Party in London. Photo: Tolga Akmen / EPA

He is also extremely wealthy. He will face accusations of not being in touch with ordinary people feeling the sharp end of the economic chaos.

His first address to Tory MPs in the Commons on Monday afternoon was said to have been delivered in a calm and reassuring manner. He promised economic and political stability and said he would end the current economic and political turmoil.

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The current chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, backed Sunak and is expected to continue in his role. He is expected to announce a tough economic statement on October 31st.

The challenges facing the UK are formidable. It has been afflicted by the same problems as most other European countries – energy prices, impact of the war in Ukraine, inflation, interest rates, cost-of-living issues – but all seem to be amplified by the political chaos of recent months.

It’s not the only challenge facing Sunak. His party has tanked in opinion polls during Truss’s premiership and now lies 30 points behind Labour in opinion polls. If an election were to be held tomorrow morning, the party would be trounced.

All the plotting and dysfunctionality of the party over the past few years – the “psychodrama” to use the fashionable media phrase over here – has left the party hopelessly divided.

“We are in the last chance saloon as a party,” said Tory peer Lord Marland on Sunday, in a call for the party to unite and be more coherent

There was talk within the party over the weekend of Sunak needing to choose a cabinet that was a “Government of All the Talents” or Goat. That would draw in the best ministerial talent from all wings and all factions of the party. Even then, the odds of the Tories winning the 2024 elections will still be long.