‘I’ve cancelled my exercise class for this! I hope he’s worth it,’ said Selina in the hotel lobby. Rishi Sunak was coming to West Suffolk to meet members of our Conservative Association. Would he be worth a listen?
Clearly our members thought so. More than 90 of us rocked up at one day’s notice to meet Rishi (or Sushi, as one of our older members kept calling him). Rishi wanted to pitch for our votes. His strategy is to introduce himself to as many members as possible. Last weekend, he met 2,000 activists in constituencies where 10,000 Tory members are based. He needs every single one of our votes if he is to overtake Liz Truss, and currently the odds are against him. One doubtful member told me at the beginning: ‘He can’t beat Truss. Not unless he wears a pussy bow and gets in a tank.’
There was some confusion on the door. We explained four times to an elderly gentleman that not everyone who voted Conservative at the last election could vote in this one, only the party members. Another had arrived to vote for Truss.
West Suffolk is a rural constituency and as safe a Conservative seat as you will find. Matt Hancock had a majority of 23,000 in the 2019 general election. Members had come from Newmarket, Haverhill, Brandon and the surrounding villages to question Rishi. Was he what we wanted in our next leader?
I canvassed the room. Many arrived supporting Truss but were happy to give Rishi a chance. Some were already keen Rishi supporters. A hard-core group of furious members believed there had been a coup against Boris Johnson and wanted him back on the ballot paper. They blamed Rishi. One very respected member had called him ‘Judas Iscariot!’ on Facebook. Rishi was up against it.
There were representatives from the farming community, the horseracing set, small businesses and the medical profession, along with a smattering of councillors. I have been a party member for more than 50 years and was excited to meet him. I like his obvious decency and intelligence and I don’t think he ‘betrayed’ Boris.
We all sat down and waited for Rishi to arrive. ‘I know what you are all thinking. That I’m even shorter in real life!’ were his opening words. Obviously we agreed and many of us commented later that his trousers were rather tight. He gave us his backstory, which we liked the sound of. We liked his core values too – hard work, the importance of family and education, public service, small state. His is an entirely Conservative story, very authentic, and we, the faithful, greatly approved of it. He had bothered to master his brief, too. He focused on rural issues and knew his audience. I looked around the room. He had us in the palm of his hand. Even the Angry Brigade at the back were listening.
It was then time for questions.
Tory grassroots members are polite. Many began with: ‘Thank you for coming to visit us in Suffolk, we appreciate it.’ Rishi was clearly touched by this. He started to answer the questions in a similarly polite fashion, using ‘Yes ma’am?’ to the ladies. This backfired when an older one misheard and replied loudly: ‘Are you calling me a man?’ So he gave up on that.
I was impressed with the quality of the questions on the economy, the NHS, farming, policing, Northern Ireland and the Union. I was equally impressed with Rishi’s answers: detailed, clear, to the point. This was what we wanted – no vague flannel or empty promises.
Alice, a farmer’s wife, asked a brilliant question on rural issues that covered many of the subjects that concern our beleaguered farmers. Rishi represents a rural constituency, Richmond in North Yorkshire, and he clearly understands our problems and vowed to address them. (Although Kate pointed out afterwards that he said ‘dairy cattle’ when it should be ‘dairy cows’. No matter.)
There was a bit of grumbling about one of his comments on the NHS: ‘We want to have more simple elective surgeries, like new hips and knees.’ ‘Those surgeries are not simple! I was very poorly!’ said one lady with a new hip from Newmarket (me). The final question was from an Angry-Brigade member. ‘Will you sign the petition to bring Boris back?’ The fact there was a huge laugh from the audience said it all. ‘No,’ replied Rishi.
I think his most important point was that in two years we will have a general election – and only he could give us a chance of victory. Members may favour Truss but the general public would vote for Sunak. It was a convincing argument.
After he’d answered questions for more than an hour, our chairman, Rachel, encouraged us to come up and meet him. Everyone was keen to do so. I spoke to various members to see what they thought of our time with Rishi: ‘He might just win a general election – Liz certainly never will!’ ‘I think he and his family look like the Obamas.’ ‘Lots of brainpower. He’s got my vote.’ ‘He is very rich. I like that – it’s reassuring.’
I asked the pussy-bow man what he thought. ‘If he can meet enough members of the party before they vote,’ he told me, ‘he will win them over.’
So Mr Sunak, how can you win this election to become our next leader? Just go out and meet as many of us as you can. Once we have met you, we will vote for you. We want to beat Keir Starmer.
As for Selina, she was pleased to have missed her exercise class and met Rishi.
Fiona Unwin is vice-president of the West Suffolk Conservative Association.