Next Tory Leader: Should we get behind the Sunak gamble?

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak has been the subject of a huge gamble

With an assured response to the coronavirus crisis, Rishi Sunak has emerged as an early front-runner to succeed Boris Johnson. Paul Krishnamurty, however, says the market has over-reacted...

"It is important to not get carried away. Just as Sunak’s rise demonstrates how quickly a reputation can grow, history tells us they can be destroyed just as quickly."

It should by now go without saying - politics moves fast. Can anyone recall, anywhere, a reputation growing faster than Rishi Sunak?

Six months ago, the 39 year-old MP for Richmond was barely known. When Boris Johnson opted out of a 'Leaders Debate' during the general election campaign, he was elevated to the frontline. By mid-February, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, following the resignation of Sajid Javid.

Now Sunak is being backed at odds of just 3.65 to be Next Conservative Leader and 5.24/1 to be the Prime Minister after Boris Johnson. Is this a gamble we should be taking seriously - a bandwagon we should be jumping aboard?

First of all, congratulations to those who did so earlier, at best odds of 70.069/1 and 150.0149/1 in those respective markets. Sadly, I was so consumed by the election and events across the Atlantic that it never crossed my mind until far too late.

Chancellors nearly always worth a punt

No doubt, he has strong credentials. All Chancellors should be taken seriously. Three of the last eight Prime Ministers had already held the post - Gordon Brown, John Major and James Callaghan. The first two moved next door from Number 11, as did Harold MacMillan in 1957.

Moreover, there is little dispute that Sunak has made a very strong start. His response to the coronavirus crisis has been assured and popular - coming across as competent and on top of his brief. In that respect, he seems the perfect foil to his charismatic yet flaky boss, Boris Johnson.

Political momentum can swiftly reverse

Despite all that, it is important to not get carried away. Just as Sunak's rise demonstrates how quickly a reputation can grow, history tells us they can be destroyed just as quickly. Brown and Major will both testify to that.

So too, more recently, Theresa May. Remember during the parliament before she became PM, Chancellor George Osborne was the favourite to succeed David Cameron. Within two years of masterminding the first Tory majority in nearly a quarter-century, Osborne was no longer even an MP.

Absolutely nobody knows how coronavirus crisis will ultimately play out. What effect the government's emergency measures will have on the economy or the income of voters long-term. Policies that initially sounds popular may ultimately be seen as a mistake. Plenty are bound to fall through the gaps in the welfare system.

Sure, in that scenario, plenty will equally forgive a less than perfect response to an unprecedented situation, but the fallout retains the potential to damage the reputation of any Chancellor or government.

Very early days for these markets

Plus this market may well be a long way from being settled. Johnson is (rightly) trading at odds-on to leave post in 2024 or later. Given how long Boris sought the top job and the parlous state of the Labour opposition, it isn't obvious that he'll step aside. Nor that he will lose the populist touch that has repeatedly handed his party a unique electoral advantage.

In reality the race to succeed him is wide-open, as one would expect so soon into his tenure. Ministers will rise and fall over the years ahead but they will nearly all be extremely ambitious. Prepared if necessary to undermine or even stab their rivals in the back.

Patel and Raab preferred at current odds

I'm certainly interested in the potential of other senior Ministers. Priti Patel seems like the dream Home Secretary of the Tory grassroots. She must be a leading candidate and decent trading value at 19.018/1.

Likewise Dominic Raab's 'pure Brexiter' credentials must play well and he's in the perfect job. Foreign Secretary is a much less risky position from which to advance than Chancellor - who is always vulnerable to a recession or a misjudged Budget. If there's an overseas crisis, or a war, the PM tends to take the lead, and the blame if it goes wrong.

Matt Hancock 24.023/1 has emerged as a frontline figure in the government and is a decent communicator. Others lower down the Cabinet rankings or outside the government - James Cleverly, Tom Tugendhat for example - retain excellent long-term potential.

So far as Sunak is concerned - and I say this without any criticism of him or his performance - the odds are simply much too short. If you were shrewd enough to take the bigger odds, my advice is to cash out now.

Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

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