The first task for a Prime Minister Truss: get Sunak back into cabinet | Simon Jenkins

British politics has this past month been an exercise in torture. Rishi Sunak’s bid for Downing Street is like that of a boxer told at the start of a contest that the judges have already decided he has lost. He has had to fight on while his opponent, Liz Truss, goes on a victory tour. The resulting campaign has so damaged both candidates that Tory members – and the public in general – would apparently prefer even the discredited Boris Johnson as prime minister. This is the same Johnson who, on resigning two months ago, had an approval rating of just 19%.

Assuming Sunak does indeed lose next week, there remains one thing he could do both for his country and for himself. He could publicly renounce his attacks on Truss, acknowledge her as his party’s chosen leader and offer at once to serve under her. Given their disagreement on economic policy, he might ask to go “offshore” to the Foreign Office in return for a public declaration of loyalty.

On almost every front, Britain currently needs thoughtful and unifying leadership. All Truss has going for her are dismally low expectations. She will inherit from Johnson one of the most lightweight, inexperienced cabinets of modern times. Previous Tory leaders from Thatcher to Major, Cameron and May treated the cabinet as a corporate executive, not as a personal court, embracing critics as well as loyalists. To Johnson, the cabinet was a ramshackle fanclub. Reports are that Truss sees it in much the same terms.

Observers of Sunak’s campaign saw him consistently outperforming Truss in debates. He made mistakes, notably in seeming overaggressive, perhaps understandable in the circumstances. But his language has at least been statesmanlike: stressing the need for economic responsibility, and avoiding Truss’s barrage of implausible policy cliches. His only intellectual equal in the recent cabinet was Michael Gove, who like him despaired of Johnson’s behaviour. Of those remaining, barely three merit serious ministerial office: perhaps Greg Clark, George Eustice and Sajid Javid.

Over the past three decades, Tory party politics has become a battlefield littered with the corpses of leadership feuds. From Major to Hague, Cameron, Osborne and now Johnson, all have been consigned to their memoirs before even reaching 60. Johnson ruthlessly decapitated an entire generation of his party’s youthful talent, including Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan, Damian Green, Dominic Grieve, Jeremy Hunt, Rory Stewart, Jesse Norman and David Gauke. That is the cabinet this country needs right now.

Britain’s current emergency is the result of three policies followed by Tory governments: Brexit, the pandemic lockdown and sanctions against Russia – the last admittedly a Nato obligation. Recovery from each will need intelligence and courage of a high order. As yet, Truss has shown little sign of either. She has shown the superficiality of a student politician and won at best the half-hearted enthusiasm of her own party. That party trails behind Labour in the polls, while she lacks any wider popular support. She needs all the help she can get.

Most immediately, she needs to reach out to Sunak. If he can act with generosity and dignity, if he can rise above the fray and play his cards right, he will benefit his party and his country – and in the longer run surely himself.

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