In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Caesar says of Gaius Longinus Cassius, the chief conspirator: ‘Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look: he thinks too much. Such men are dangerous’. None of the eight Tories fighting like ferrets in a sack to succeed our own fallen Caesar, Boris Johnson, looks leaner or hungrier than the former chancellor in his crisply laundered snow white shirt. But would what is beginning to look like his inevitable triumph as prime minister be good or dangerous for the Tory party, and the country at large?
Both supporters and opponents of Sunak might care to consider the case of John Major, the man who rose without trace and came from nowhere to succeed Margaret Thatcher in 1990, the last occasion when the Tory party tore itself apart after stabbing and deposing a serving prime minister. It is a cautionary tale.
Like Sunak, Major had held one of the great offices of state, the chancellorship, (he was also briefly foreign secretary), without making much impact on the public or tying himself to any particular party ideology. Apparently a man of the sensible moderate middle, he had the virtue of offending the fewest people, and thus smoothly seized the crown that had seemed certain to go to Thatcher’s abrasive challenger Michael Heseltine.
After scraping a narrow election win in 1992, Major spent the next five years showing the Tories how wrong they had been to choose him. No less of a fanatical Europhile than Heseltine, his misbegotten bid to tie the pound to the ERM, precursor of the euro, exploded, leading to Black Wednesday, and mortgage misery for millions. Major then proceeded to split his party by forcing through the Maastricht Treaty, making Britain a subservient slave of the EU. The Tories ended Major's inglorious reign with a series of sordid sex scandals that turned the party into a national laughing stock.
The result of Major's towering incompetence was the New Labour landslide of 1997, making the Tories an electorally irrelevant non-event for more than a decade. While it would be foolish to claim that Rishi Sunak is John Major Mark II – he is clearly a far more intelligent man than the hapless former PM – he does share some of the same traits of conspiratorial sleight of hand that lifted Major into No. 10 in the first place.
It is now clear that behind a thin facade of loyalty to the leader who had made him chancellor, Sunak was artfully planning a coup against Johnson and his own elevation to the premiership. Just as Major used a diplomatic dental problem to delay coming out in support of Thatcher in 1990, so ‘Cassius’ Sunak laid the ground for his own political assassination of Boris well in advance of his supposedly sudden resignation last week. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and creating a campaign website and making a slickly sophisticated leadership video must have taken weeks, if not months, of skilful secret preparation.
While it can have come as no surprise to Johnson when the familiarly treacherous figure of Michael Gove drew his dagger from beneath his toga and stabbed him (for the second time) last week – ‘Et tu Govey!’ he may have murmured – it must have been a shock to Boris to realise too late that he had been harbouring a far more dangerous conspirator as his Downing Street neighbour for most of the past three years.
If they seriously wish to stop Sunak from claiming the premiership as the just reward for his plotting, the Tory PM wannabes who he has left standing with the launch of his putsch need to take a leaf from his own book: they must start deploying some of the political tricks he is already using against them. Put simply: they need to ask if Rishi is too rich to rule?
They need to ask how the richest man in parliament can possibly claim to understand the money worries of most ordinary people at a time of unprecedented financial crisis and rocketing food and fuel costs. Digging deeper, they may want to inquire how Sunak – the son, as his video boasts, of an ordinary Southampton pharmacist – came to acquire his untold squillions anyway.
If much of the money came his way via his work as a ‘bankster’ toiling in the vaults of the Goldman Sachs empire, perhaps questions need to be asked about the justice of a system that puts such eye watering sums in the hands of a favoured few. If Sunak’s Tory rivals don’t raise these awkward and embarrassing questions, they can be sure that Labour very soon will.
It is early days yet in the Tory leadership stakes, but already it is clear that Rishi Sunak, the man who arguably squandered billions that Britain didn’t have during Covid; the low tax Tory who presided over the highest taxes in a generation; the ‘patriot’ with a Green Card enabling him to work in the US; is the man the other Tory leadership candidates need to beat.
If they don’t succeed in building a convincing case against him over the next days and weeks, the future is staring them starkly in the face. Just ask John Major.