Conservative Party challengers for the United Kingdom’s prime ministership, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, went head-to-head on Monday night in their first TV debate on BBC, but it may not really matter who won the audience for at least three reasons.
First, according to a YouGov poll of members from the Conservative Party last week, Truss is beating Sunak by 62 per cent to 38 per cent – that’s a pretty unbeatable lead, despite more TV debates and speeches at the hustings before 6 September, the day when the winner will be announced.
Second, this is the British Conservative Party and its voters would much rather read tabloids like The Daily Mail or broadsheets like The Times, than be influenced by TV or social media—unlike the United States, for example, where TV is a huge influencer. Last heard, Liz Truss had the Mail “in her corner…(which) could prove decisive for her.”
Moreover, it seems, Tory voters seem to prefer less flashy leaders. So Sunak’s viral launch video, in which he tells the “origin story” of how his family came to England from East Africa, is nevertheless seen to be “slick” and “overly professional,” while the Truss campaign is seen as “more homespun.”
Culture secretary Nadine Dorries, close to Truss, has lately been criticising Sunak’s £3,500 bespoke suit and £450 Prada loafers. In contrast, she says, Truss will be campaigning around the country in £4.50 earrings.
Third, there has been some analysis of their campaign promises. The economy, of course, tops the list. Sunak, as former Chancellor of the Exchequer, believes it is critical to bring inflation under control, while Truss feels that it’s alright to postpone the tough love that comes with tough choices for just a bit, as the last few years have been so trying. On Brexit, Sunak says he’s committed to reforming all laws and bureaucracy, although Truss, who voted to “remain” in the European Union in the 2016 referendum, is now posing as Boris Johnson’s true inheritor.
Sunak’s ‘double standards’
Then there is the Sunak-Truss agreement on immigration that is sending shockwaves around the world. The grandson of an immigrant from Punjab, via East Africa, Sunak has put forth one crazy idea after another – immigrants should be housed in cruise ships rather than hotels, is one. Both he and Truss believe that immigrants should be sent 6,500 km away to Rwanda.
“When my grandparents came here, they came here because the British govt had decided that they wanted them to come here,” Sunak said in a TV interview, insisting that Britain needed to take control of its borders. Besides Rwanda, Sunak said, he would pursue “migration partnerships” with other countries too.
Truss’ take on immigration reform has amounted to not “cowering” in front of the European convention on human rights.
Let’s face it. The reason this enormous gap exists between Sunak and Truss as of last week is that Britain may not be ready for a non-white prime minister. It doesn’t matter how bright or articulate or hard-working Sunak is; now they aren’t voting for his ability to think out of the box like he did during Covid when he created schemes to allow people to retain their jobs, although at an enhanced cost to the exchequer.
That’s also why Sunak’s hardline ideas on immigration reform come as such a shock. Is he trying to be more loyal than the king in a largely white Conservative Party? To give him the benefit of the doubt, Sunak may only be trying to reduce the huge costs the British are paying towards the country’s asylum system–£1.5 billion a year, or £4.7 million a day on hotel accommodation for homeless migrants–because the immigrant backlog is at a 10-year high. Britain simply can’t afford this anymore, says Sunak, and must take control of its borders.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss knows better, so for the moment, is keeping quiet on many matters. On Sunak’s cruise ship idea to house migrants, Truss has refused to speak; nor is she commenting on the forced removal of migrants, putting them on the flight to Rwanda and how much that would cost.
So, who thought up the Rwanda plan in the first place? Home secretary Priti Patel, another person of Indian origin, argued that it would be much cheaper to ship people to Kigali, instead of allowing them into the UK.
Capacity for cruelty and transformation
To be sure, in recent weeks, Sunak has handled well the controversy over taxes his wife, Akshata Murty, should pay on the wealth she has inherited from her father, Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy, even though she is a non-domicile in the UK.
Today, though, Britain seems somewhat taken aback at Rishi Sunak’s hypocrisy on immigration; how can someone who benefitted from the system not share it with others?
Perhaps, that’s also why Liz Truss is ahead in the race. Apart from the colour of her skin that gives her a natural advantage, for the moment at least, she hasn’t demonstrated her capacity for as much cruelty as Rishi Sunak.
Sunak had the potential of becoming the new Barack Obama–even if he lost the race. He could have shown the world that Britain, which once lorded over the compatriots of his ancestors in India, has this amazing capacity for transformation, and that he and thousands of British citizens, whose families were once subjects in former colonies around the world, are living examples of that change.
Instead, Sunak has risen so fast and flown so close to the sun that he seems to have forgotten where he’s from. He says he remains a Hindu, took his oath as MP on the Bhagavad Gita and wears the sacred thread on his wrist.
Perhaps Sunak should read the Bhagavad Gita as well as his Shakespeare more carefully, after this first TV debate. One will tell him to do his ‘dharma’, which is to do right by the people, while the other might introduce him to the quality of mercy. But if his ideas on immigration reform are anything to go by, he just may have failed to understand the morals in both stories.
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)