Bobby Ghosh: Betting shops have former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Trade Secretary Penny Mordaunt as joint favorites to succeed Boris Johnson. Do you think either has the ability to bring the Conservative Party together and provide the leadership that Johnson seems unable to do?
Adrian Wooldridge: Whoever wins would get a big boost, just because they’re not Boris Johnson and come without the baggage and reputation of lying.
I think Rishi Sunak is extremely good. He is very bright, friendly and well organized. One of Boris’s many issues is that he’s a very chaotic administrator, so having someone in number 10 who can just keep the trains running on time would be a huge boost.
However, he’s a fairly traditional Thatcherian, which means he’s very uncomfortable with ‘leveling up’, especially when it comes to spending a lot of money. There are a lot of Tories, especially on the right of the party, who would be very nervous about having a fiscally responsible leader who thinks the most important thing to do is to clean up in the economic situation of the country before starting to reduce taxes. Moreover, by resigning slightly after Health Secretary Sajid Javid, he portrayed himself more as a follower than a leader – which is a gibe people are already using against him. There is a lot of hostility within the party towards Rishi now. Six months ago he was in the ideal position, but he’s fallen a bit since then.
Penny Mordaunt is an amazing figure, and I’m a little surprised she’s so popular because she’s not in the Cabinet.
She represents a seat in Portsmouth, which is a long-standing Labor seat, which she moved to the Conservative column and built her majority. She is therefore quite good at representing the sentiments of the British white working class, without being particularly on the right.
BG: It should be mentioned that some of the other candidates are Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and new Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi.
Clive Crook: These are all plausible candidates. I think Rishi Sunak is right on the issues and it is a sign of the times to see the right wing of the Conservative Party being the anti-Thatcherite wing. The fiscal discipline that Sunak represents will undeniably be necessary as part of this adjustment to post-Covid fiscal control. This is a very hard message to sell for him. I also think he deserves credit for what he said in his resignation letter, which is that people want to be told the truth and he’s willing to tell them the truth – that that allows him access to the leadership of the party is another question.
I’m a little surprised to see Penny Mordaunt though. I hadn’t seen her as a political heavyweight like some of the other candidates are.
AW: She’s been campaigning behind the scenes for quite a long time and has published a book called Greater Britain, which tries to take an optimistic look at the future. She therefore campaigned, but she is not one of the big beasts of the party.
Ben Wallace would probably have a good chance because he’s kind of a bland, no-nonsense ex-military person that people could support.
CC: It’s more of an old-fashioned conservative in some ways.
BG: To take the focus off Britain and take a look at the wider context of Europe and the rest of the world, how does it matter who succeeds Boris Johnson?
CC: Repairing relations with Europe is a challenge for the UK, and Johnson has been irresponsible on every level – choosing unnecessary fights, backtracking, threatening to escalate some disputes, which he should know that Britain cannot win. The UK needs someone who is much more positive about developing a fruitful post-Brexit relationship with the European Union. It is interesting to me that the other personalities of the party did not stand out on this subject. There’s no way to get the most out of Brexit without cooperating with the EU, but a narrative along those lines has yet to really emerge.
BG: Why not? Are potential candidates worried about how this might play out with their constituents?
AW: Well, the basic Conservative vote was a vote against Europe. Many Brexiters are very hostile to Europe, either because they see it as a hindrance to a truly global trade policy or because they see it as a set of finicky regulations. The Conservative Party has not overcome this anti-European state of mind.
Again, I would look to someone like Rishi Sunak, who was a Brexiter but would be much more mature because he knows economics about what sort of realistic relationship we could have with the EU. By comparison, Boris doesn’t care about economic policy. He never gave serious thought to how wealth is created or how commerce works.
The one person we haven’t focused on yet is the one who, in many ways, is most likely to replace Johnson: Liz Truss. She is not at the top of this ranking, but she is Foreign Secretary, has been heavily involved in trade policy and enjoys the support of the Conservative Party base.
In many ways she is more intransigent in her disregard for social democratic European policies and I think she would see herself as someone who has had to take a very hard line with Europe, which I think would be very dumb.
BG: Clive, does Liz Truss do that for you as a potential leader?
CC: No, not really. One hesitates to say she could be worse than Johnson – what could be worse? – but in terms of the relationship with Europe, it is a hard line that takes Euroscepticism to a self-defeating extreme. I think it would be toxic for UK-EU relations to have her as a leader. Someone like Rishi Sunak is more plausible. He has a more technocratic demeanor, he would like to do business and I can’t imagine him making pro-British, anti-EU speeches.
Post-Covid, fixing the relationship with Europe is absolutely the most important thing the UK government needs to do. Evidence of the cost of Brexit continues to mount: it complicates Britain’s efforts to bring inflation down, it will complicate efforts to restore fiscal control. Brexit looms in the background of all these big political issues and bringing the relationship back to some kind of cooperative mode is crucial.
BG: Both of you clearly think that Rishi Sunak has within him the ability to govern at this very difficult time. Does he have credibility with the party base? Does he have the charisma to lead the party in an election or is it too far off for the party to care about right now?
AW: He lost some of his credibility based on Partygate fines and his wife’s non-dom tax status. Right before that happened, he was clearly the most popular person. But I think he’s very likeable, he’s a technocrat, he’s not a gambler like Johnson is. He denies all of Johnson’s bad traits. He is MP for a constituency in North Yorkshire. Her parents were also immigrants who made their own way in the world, giving her an appeal to the immigrant community, which is a pretty big swing vote in the UK. It also has the ability to appeal to technocratic elites in Europe and the United States at a time when we need to have some credibility with the financial world because the UK economy is very shaky.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of the Hindustan Times, Editor-in-Chief of Quartz and International Editor of Time.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion