Sunak team should stop playing the racing card

With Foreign Secretary Liz Truss now favorite to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and British Prime Minister, the campaign of fellow leadership candidate and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak is in panic mode.

He recently announced plans to protect the greenbelt, trying to flatter older NIMBYist owners. And he also made a sort of U-turn on the tax cuts. Sunak – who usually tries to project an image of calm and firmness – looks rather restless and uneasy.

Now some of Sunak’s supporters are peddling racial identity politics in a desperate attempt to give his flagging campaign a much-needed boost.

Lord Ranger, one of the main Tory donors, has said that Britain would be seen as ‘racist’ if Sunak lost the Tory leadership election to Truss. Speaking to India’s Bharat Tak news network, Ranger “warned” that if the conservative base “rejected” Sunak, “it would be a bad name for the party and the country as it would be perceived as racist”. In a video posted on Twitter Ranger last week urged Tory members to secure a “watershed moment” in British politics by making Sunak the UK’s first Asian-born prime minister.

This is nonsense for several reasons. Despite all the flaws of the Conservative Party, ethnic minority politicians have risen to positions of great power and influence within it. Besides Sunak, other MPs of Indian descent have risen through the ranks, including current Home Secretary Priti Patel, Attorney General Suella Braverman and Cabinet Minister Alok Sharma (who chaired the COP26 conference on change climate). Of Pakistani origin, Sajid Javid, MP for Bromsgrove, previously served as Chancellor, Home Secretary and, more recently, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Iraqi-born Nadhim Zahawi, currently chancellor, previously served as education secretary.

The reality is that the Conservatives are now one of the most inclusive center-right political parties in the Western world. The party generally accepts the demographic diversity of Britain and supports the progress made by non-white politicians within its ranks.

Lord Ranger’s efforts to guilt Tory members into voting for Sunak also ignore the fact that the impressive Kemi Badenoch, born in London to Nigerian parents, has established herself through this leadership race as quite the grassroots favorite. Indeed, you could say that the no-nonsense, anti-revival pioneer is the new darling of the British political right. YouGov poll suggests that if Tory MPs had placed Badenoch in the bottom two, she would not only have defeated Sunak among the Tory members, but would also have defeated Truss or Trade Secretary Penny Mordaunt (both of whom are white women). There is plenty of evidence to suggest Conservative Party members would be perfectly comfortable catapulting Badenoch – who has never held a cabinet post – to the top job in British politics.

Conservative MPs are not froth-mouthing fanatics. The idea that they will reject Sunak because of his race is all the more ridiculous when you consider how popular he has been with the party in the recent past.

There are a variety of plausible reasons why Sunak’s popularity with the base has waned over time. His tax hikes have become increasingly unpopular given the crisis in the cost of living. This added to the perception that he is out of touch. As did the controversies surrounding his wife, Akshata Murthy, fiscal arrangements.

There is also a perception among Tory members, who are overwhelmingly pro-Leave, that Sunak betrayed outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His resignation as chancellor helped trigger a tsunami of resignations. Truss, meanwhile, never quit at all. It’s also fair to say that Sunak’s ideas for the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy are somewhat underdeveloped. This puts him at a great disadvantage, as he competes with a politician from Truss who, through her roles as Secretary of International Trade and Secretary of Foreign Affairs, has presented herself as one of the champions of ” Global Britain” post-Brexit.

So there are plenty of reasons why Liz Truss is being tipped to become the next Conservative leader. And none of them have anything to do with Rishi Sunak’s skin color. Elements of the pro-Sunak Brigade would do well to refrain from peddling their desperate racial identity politics.

If Sunak loses the Tory leadership race and fails to become the UK’s next prime minister, it will be for reasons rooted in politics and character – not his race.

Rakib Ehsan is the author of the forthcoming book, Beyond grievancewhich is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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