Rishi Sunak is the only credible choice for Conservative leader - Andrew Vine

And then there were four. As the political parlour game of choosing the next Prime Minister continues, the Conservatives are in danger of overlooking the obvious.

There is only one credible candidate to replace Boris Johnson in number 10, and it is the former Chancellor and Richmond MP, Rishi Sunak.

This is plain to any impartial observer, given Mr Sunak’s experience in office and his steady hand during the worst peacetime crisis any Chancellor has faced in living memory.

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Yet it seems far from obvious to quite a few long-standing Conservative Party members I’ve been chatting to over the past week.

Rishi Sunak is frontrunner to become Conservative leader.Rishi Sunak is frontrunner to become Conservative leader.
Rishi Sunak is frontrunner to become Conservative leader.

They are drawn to either Penny Mordaunt or Liz Truss, depending on where they sit on the Tory spectrum.

Ms Mordaunt is popular with the traditional one-nation wing of the party, even though half a dozen people have said to me that they don’t really know much about her.

But she talks the talk about leadership and love of country, and that seems to be enough for them, especially when bolstered by her much-proclaimed status as a Royal Navy reservist.

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Good for her. Anyone willing to serve in her country’s forces is to be applauded, but patriotism and a sense of duty are not enough in themselves to qualify somebody to run the country.

Shift farther to the right, and Ms Truss is picking up support, especially among the ardent Brexit-supporting Conservatives I know. Phrases like “won’t stand for any nonsense” and “reminds me a bit of Mrs Thatcher” have come up in conversation.

Fair enough. Ms Truss has set her stall out as the candidate who embodies the spirit of the most electorally successful years the Conservatives had, but to my eyes at least, she does not have a fraction of the authority, let alone the detailed policy platform, of the leader she quite obviously idolises.

What of Mr Sunak, though?

When his name comes up, those I’ve talked to hesitate ever so slightly before responding that he’s obviously a very clever and talented politician, who did a good job during the pandemic.

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There is an unspoken “But…” in their responses. Pressed a bit more, a few are suspicious of him for the part he played in Boris Johnson’s demise and others think he imposed too high a burden of tax on the country to be a truly Conservative Chancellor.

Common sense may prevail in the end, and the people I’ve spoken to might decide to vote for him in the only ballot that really counts for now – that among party members – but I wouldn’t put money on it.

The Conservatives are at severe risk of repeating the same mistake they made in electing Boris Johnson leader – of letting themselves be carried away by tub- thumping rhetoric.

He got the job on the back of that, when his track record in office was terrible.

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A lacklustre stint as foreign secretary was all the real experience that he had.

The abuse directed at Mr Sunak from the right of the party is appalling.

Branding him a traitor to Boris Johnson for resigning when it was abundantly clear the Prime Minister was not fit to remain in office ignores the fact that in a lacklustre Cabinet, he stood head and shoulders above most of the rest.

How quickly memories fade. Without Mr Sunak’s intervention – and the hundreds of billions he pumped into Covid business relief – we would have seen an even worse economic catastrophe when the pandemic hit.

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Neither Ms Mordaunt nor Ms Truss can point to anything in their careers that comes close to matching that.

Nor have they been as frank in their claims about tax and spending. Mr Sunak has been straight with the public in telling them that the country cannot afford tax cuts against a backdrop of Covid borrowing to be paid back and the need for more spending on the NHS and care system.

The problem with the contest currently under way is that the electorate being targeted is not representative of the country at large.

Of the candidates, only Mr Sunak seems to realise he needs to speak to a much wider electorate – those in the red wall seats of the north as well as the voters of traditional Tory heartlands.

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Ms Mordaunt and Ms Truss are doing splendidly at pushing the buttons of core supporters by talking about tax cuts and making the most of Brexit, but that won’t be enough to win a general election in two years’ time against a Labour Party that is infinitely more suitable for office than it was in 2019.

The Conservatives who have talked to me are currently letting their hearts rule their heads.

They may not love Mr Sunak like they loved Mr Johnson, but they ought to have the sense to see he’s the only candidate who is able to reach out beyond their party.