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Are the Tories ready for Rishi’s resignation?

His time is nigh. Credit: Getty

March 14, 2024 - 1:00pm

Rishi Sunak is on the skids. After a limp dishcloth of a Budget, the defection of Lee Anderson and the bungled response to this week’s race row, his party’s patience is running out. As Tim Montgomerie puts it, “he’s a nice man, but he can’t do politics.” The Prime Minister can’t do policy either — wasting his time in office on a bizarrely basic programme of government. 

Reporting from today suggests that MPs are agitating for a change in leader and, with poll ratings in the low-to-mid twenties, the Tories might as well take a gamble before the general election. Or at least that’s the theory, as replacing Sunak will be tricky in practice.

The traditional method of ousting a Tory PM is for him or her to win (yes, win) a party vote of confidence. As in the case of Theresa May in 2018 and Boris Johnson in 2022, this typically proves to be a Pyrrhic victory with the “winner” losing office within months or even weeks. However, in an election year there isn’t time for that rigmarole. The process has to be accelerated, which would require Sunak to resign.

The obvious trigger point is the local and mayoral elections on 2 May. A disastrous set of results would give him a reason to go voluntarily — or, if he won’t, a justification for the men in grey suits to force him out.

A new leader would then need to be chosen and settled in as prime minister by 23 July, which is when Parliament breaks up for the long summer recess. There are three options for making that choice: a full leadership contest with party members’ ballot, an MPs-only ballot, or a “coronation” (i.e. an informal consensus of MPs). The precedents for all three are poor. The first method selected Liz Truss, the second Theresa May and the third Sunak himself. That said, the fastest option is a coronation.

One problem with that approach, though, is that there’s no obvious leader-in-waiting. No candidate is so strong as to make the choice clear. Looking down the list of possibles, all them are hobbled in one way or another and thus unable to break free of the pack.

Boris Johnson, David Cameron and David Frost might have stood a chance if they were (still) MPs, but it’s almost certainly too late to change that. Suella Braverman, is perhaps the most prominent of Sunak’s critics, yet she’s no longer the undisputed champion of the Tory Right. With Priti Patel re-emerging as a rival, the two former home secretaries risk cancelling each other out.

Within the Government ranks, the frontrunners are Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch. If one of them were able to outpace the other that might settle the leadership question, but the ConservativeHome Cabinet league table shows them locked in a competition for top spot. Both need to flesh out their agendas and address their perceived weaknesses, whether it’s a lack of work ethic or a tendency for confrontation.

Robert Jenrick is a dark horse in the context, having pulled off a remarkable change of image to become a contender. Though he starts from a low base, and probably won’t win, he’s proof that reinvention can get results, and at very least boost a candidate’s profile.

The bookies’ favourites — Badenoch, Mordaunt and Braverman — should take note. They can congratulate themselves on where they’ve got so far, but none of them has done well enough to guarantee a coronation. At the current rate of crisis, they have two months to move out of their comfort zones and claim the crown.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
4 months ago

There is zero chance that a change of leader would revive Tory fortunes, not least because the Tory MPs riffling through leaders as though Prime Ministers were swipe items on Tinder is part of the reason they are in this mess. But I guess the current cohort of Tory MPs are stupid enough to try this.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
4 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I found your comment particularly salient as I was suddenly struck with the idea that women (apparently) rate most men as below average on tinder. Is this exactly the same thing that normal people see when swiping through Tory MPs?

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

It just shows that most males in the Tory government become wimps and women have to do it. Andrew Bridgen was one who wasn’t a wimp and paid the price for it.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

A new leader cannot change the way the tories vote. As a party they are getting it wrong. They will not have the power they now have for decades and have made a mess of it. Braverman might just manage to do it but that is just a hope. At least she has the conviction and the guts to do the right thing which Sunak hasn’t although he talks as if he had.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
4 months ago

Complete madness!
Forcing Sunak out to install a third PM in succession who has no electoral mandate would do nothing but confirm the popular view of them as a bunch of venal incompetents who hold the country in contempt.
Its not even clear that many of them even care about their own party. If they did they would see that the urgent task at hand is now to make sure there is one after the deserved drubbing they are going to get at the next election, regardless of who is nominally in charge.
Any MPs currently manoeuvring for the privilege of calling themselves Prime Minister for a few months is simply making it more likely that they will fall so low at the next election that there may not be a way back.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago

There are many in the goverment that are into globalism (WEF and all that) and do not realise that open borders means you have lost your country. Once you have lost your borders in war or mass illegal immigration you have lost your country and will be ruled from without by globalism and cannot call yourself an independent country.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 months ago

The Tories need to take what is coming to them in the GE and then rebuild afterwards. Any candidate that replaces Sunak and then gets destroyed in the GE won’t be there long after the GE, so would be unwise to put themselves forward to get the poison chalice of leading the Tories to abysmal defeat.
I say this as a life long Tory voter who prays for a recovery by 2029 – 5 years of Starmer will be bad enough, but the prospect of a decade or more fills me with total horror

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
4 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

For the last 30 years my friends on the political left have been saying that the Tories are on the brink of oblivion because they are failing to replace their rapidly aging core support.
Up until the last couple of years this has been easy to dismiss as wishful thinking, due to two well known phenomena:
(1) That voters become more conservative as they get older.
(2) That young people don’t vote so much and the ones that do are typically concentrated in urban and university seats which the Tories don’t win anyway
However I can no longer argue with the psephological evidence. In 2019, despite winning the election convincingly, the Tories won a lower percentage of the 18-24 and 25-34 voters than they did in 1997 when they were on the wrong end of a beasting from New Labour.
What’s more these are young people who are much less likely than previous generations to own their own home, have children or hold stable, long-term employment. The main drivers of the rightward drift as we get older.
We live in volatile times, but it is very hard to see the next Labour government lasting less than two parliamentary terms. Its a very valid question to ask whether the Conservative Party will even exist as a credible party of government in 10 years time.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 months ago

The Wilson / Callaghan government only lasted one term because they inherited a mess and made an even bigger mess. Starmer will do the same. Blair inherited a golden legacy and was in many ways more Tory than the Tories, at least to begin with.
I hear lots of “the young this and the young that” but I then find very few who are actually the way they are reported to be. The young are more idealistic and optimistic but that does not make them blindly follow a path to destruction.
Maybe today’s Conservative party is too badly broken to fix in 5 years, but there will always be a majority at all age groups who prefer sanity to insanity and Starmer will not be able to control the insane elements within his ranks.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

There is truth in that. The Labour party either have a suicide wish or they are so hungry for power that they will stop at nothing.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago

I wouldn’t worry too much about the medium term. The political left are usually wrong. And most people grow up and revert to common sense. Eventually. Though the incubation period may be getting longer.
Sorting out housing affordability is critical. “Number 1, factor 2” as the Americans like to say (i.e. 2x as important as anything else). That’s also why limiting immigration is so vital.

Andrew F
Andrew F
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

But Labour is not going to stop mass immigration.
They would import even more savages from wrong cultures and religion.
Purely on basis on immigration, Brexit was a mistake.
Replacing hard working Europeans who would assimilate within one generation with benefit scroungers or worse.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

That is a failure by the Tories but I see your point. However on balance I am glad we attained Brexit. There is something about globalism in Europe which is extremely dangerous.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

The Tories have made a very very bad job on over immigration. When I last checked we were 60M. Now people are talking about 80M and the countryside must now be given up for housing. Will we become just one big city with all the attendant evils of a big city?

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 months ago

Only in Britain though. Across Europe and in the US, right of centre parties are getting more and more popular with the young.
The Tories’ problem is that most of their MPs aren’t conservatives, they’re LibDems or imitation New Labour. No wonder they’re toast.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago

You can tell by all thewoke around that the conservatives are not conservatives.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago

It is true that the more older people get the more they become conservative. The only snag is that the tory party are no longer conservative.

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
4 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Better get used to the horror. By the time Starmer changes the rules on voting (16 year olds, more absentee voting, citizenship,hence voting rights,to 2million immigrants, etc, etc). Then there’s boundary changes. Labour will be in for 2 terms, UNLESS militant and Corbyn get moving and it lurches hard left.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Phil Rees

They are already the party of Islam from my reading. Woe betide everyone else.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

There are other options than the Tories that I will switch to and it isn’t Labour despite what they think although I do hope that the good ones amongst them will get in but certainly not my MP.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
4 months ago

At this point, who’d want the job? Leading your party into an electoral shellacking that will blacken your political escutcheon for the rest of your career? It’s almost as though this idea is Sunak’s way of weaseling out of responsibility for the forthcoming disaster. Sorry, Rishi, but you made your bed, now you gotta sleep in it.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago

I would sum him up as all talk but no action. His speeches are very upbeat then you gradually realise he has no punch behind it. What an opportunity gone to waste.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

No mention of Cleverly?
That reminds me I need to pay the £39 (it was £25 last time!) democratic participation fee to join the Tory party and have some forlorn hope of influencing the vote in favour of the least fruity loony.
To be fair they’ll be needing the donation money if they’re going to purge all the racist donors. That might help shift the vote my way.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Keep your money in your pocket ! The Tory MPs need no external help in screwing things up.

Adoptive Loiner
Adoptive Loiner
4 months ago

‘Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’ springs to mind

John Riordan
John Riordan
4 months ago

I hope it’s not Kemi Badenoch. She’s far to valuable to waste in this way: the next election is all about giving the Tories the kicking they richly deserve, and it makes no difference who’s in charge. It would be better if Sunak just stays on, takes the beating, and lets the Tory Party rebuild itself to have a shot in 2029.

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
4 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

I agree that Badenoch is the best candidate (despite the witterings of a few idiots who are bothered by her colour). But I also take your point that we shouldn’t waste her in an almost hopeless contest.
What a different place the Tories could have been in today if they’d chosen her in the last contest. But no, they had to “play safe”. Sheesh.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Damon Hager

Suella Braverman would have been a good bet as well. It would appear that the women of colour are more British than the British.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Why would it be able to rebuild itself when they have failed to use the time they had with a record number of seats?

Matt M
Matt M
4 months ago

Obviously the answer is Kemi.
They should have gone with her when Boris resigned but the right of the Tory parliamentary party unbelievably chose to coalesce around Liz Truss! Kemi was leading the members polls and had she gone to the last two the membership would have chosen her in a heartbeat. Penny Mourdant is forever tainted by her “transmen are men” comments.
Personally I think this would be worth trying. At least Kemi Badenoch has positions on immigration, wokery and energy security which chime with the public’s. And she is pugnacious and smart. Only this week she got the decision right on Frank Hester while her colleagues were prevaricating.
She might not win the election for the Tories but she could well stem the losses and secure the LOTO role. At the moment with Sunak in charge they look on course for the drubbing of the century! I think if she was in charge and limited the Labour majority, she would have a strong mandate to remain leader.
And who knows? In Sept 2019 Boris’s own brother resigned his post, 29 MPs had lost the whip, parliament had forced Boris to send a humiliating letter to the EU and it was universally believed that he only had weeks left in the job. In Dec 2019, he won a landslide! Perhaps when the public stop laughing about having yet another PM, they might find they prefer her over Starmer (who I think is a dud on the Truss, May, Brown model).

John Riordan
John Riordan
4 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Kemi should not become leader now. She should do it after the Tory Party has got the kicking it richly deserves at the next election.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Funny. I know nothing about her. We must mix in different circles.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

I certainly will not be voting Tory with the MP they saddle us with every time. Totally wokish. Whoever puts her in must be wokish as well. Why doesn’t someone tell her it is not equal marriage. Marriage between a man and a woman is far more precious than that. Can’t stand her as an MP.

AC Harper
AC Harper
4 months ago

Just a few months ago… “Step forward the scapegoat to carry us through to the next General Election!” Our Rishi was too cute to step forward but he was startled to find everyone else had stepped back…

j watson
j watson
4 months ago

Groan. Let’s blame Rishi rather than a real reflection on what is wrong with Right Wing thinking – esp economic analysis. Country is poorer but the v Rich are richer. Public slowly grasping this too alongside all the rest of the utter shambles.

John Riordan
John Riordan
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

The country is poorer because it printed half a trillion pounds in a panicked reaction to what turned out to be a much more easily manageable problem in the form of the pandemic, because it won’t reform taxation policy so as to stimulate growth, it replaces this lost growth with cheap immigrant labour to stop GDP collapsing but which makes GDP/capita fall, it pays welfare carreerists to sit at home doing nothing, and it tolerates the continued refusal of the public sector to return to the office, which puts it in the astonishing position of having productivity back at the levels it had in 1997.

Please explain where there is even a scintilla of right-wing thinking in this wholly leftwing-lunatic mess?

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
4 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

It is interesting – the one, very short, period when I saw some decent identifiably right-wing thinking was not the ‘populist’ Johnson or the ‘change agent’ Truss, rather it was staid old Theresa May. If you look at some of her early stuff before Europe sent her off the rails there was some decent intent there.
It is much to Theresa May’s credit that she was the one senior politician of recent times to actually talk seriously about funding social care long term and she deserved a lot more credit than she got for that.

John Riordan
John Riordan
4 months ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

I agree that adult social care is a fiscal time-bomb, but May’s approach to solving the problem was to introduce an attack on housing wealth as the solution to it. I recall debating this at the time during 2017, and despite the assurances given with regard to the intended limits to the proposed system, it failed the crucial test of “would you trust these policy levers in the hands of a Labour government”, the answer being, of course, that local authorities would simply end up seizing valuable homes as a punitive-taxation strategy for progressive funding of adult social care.

In other words, if you bought a house and spent your life paying off the mortgage, you’ll still end up in a nursing home next to someone who depended on housing benefit all their lives, with both of you paid-for with of the proceeds of the house only one of you owned. It was what lost the Tories their majority, destroyed any chance of a proper negotiation with the EU, and led to the most poisonous period in politics in living memory.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

She turned out a bit woke though concerning the schools. I think Truss was a better bet but Suella Braverman an even better one.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Simple answer JR – failure to switch more taxation to sources of wealth rather than income. Your comment indicates you’ll grasp the problem with the money deployed during Pandemic is that it seeped rapidly through to the richest who used it to buy even more assets. They were contained for a period on spending on goods & services and thus instead bought more assets. I can accept it wasn’t deliberate and Pandemic created problems extremely difficult for all Govts, but the failure to switch more to wealth taxes to now help rebalance is ‘political’ and the Right protecting it’s own.

John Riordan
John Riordan
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

So, your answer is to deal with defective monetary policy by introducing defective fiscal policy. Insane. (I made this same point under the article about Piketty here today too: at least you aren’t the only leftwinger who thinks like this).

And, I note, it is not in fact an answer to the question in any case. I asked you where was the right-wing ideology in any part of what was described, and all you can come up with is a statement that ignores the question and recommends instead heaping more left-wing lunacy onto an already-large pile of it.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

In affect they made a dog’s breakfast of it. If they could at least admit vaccine damage that could be something.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Well…who exactly else do you suggest blaming? Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of guilty men and women in my mind, not just Sunak, but he is the PM and party leader. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer during Covid.
[And, in fairness, we’ll never know what a 2019 Conservative government without Covid would have looked like. We should say that.]
What exactly has been ‘right wing’ about the period post-Covid? Or most of the period post 2010. It’s been ultra corporatist for sure if that’s what you mean.
Keir Starmer will really inherit problems that would be facing whoever is PM – ageing population, the nonsensical coalition-era triple lock pension, Ukraine. We’ll have to see how he fares. And whoever is PM will need to get far more serious on immigration, that isn’t even politically partisan at this point. Starmer has said several times immigration is too high and, surprisingly, didn’t get all that much kickback.
The next Conservative leader will be at something of a crossroads between continuity corporatism and something more identifiably on the lines of classic right wing thinking. Sadly I fear they will duck that much-needed debate in favour of comfort zones, not least because I see no candidate willing to have that debate. I hope I’m wrong.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

See my response to JR above SH.
The ‘political’ problem now is the required switch to more asset wealth taxation (and I’m not talking about the elderly stuck in a £1m house, but rather the v rich) is that the v rich control most of the Media and the Bond markets. The politicians probably all recognise this to different degrees, even some on the Right, but have to tread carefully. But it’s coming. Inevitable. or we end up with society drifting to what we see in the 3rd world with huge inequality between the vast majority and a tiny group of extreme wealthy.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Hunt has dealt with that. The very rich entrepreneurs are even now loading their jets to depart for friendlier climes. You’ll notice they’ve gone in about 7 years as the economy retracts, and the great new ideas come to play in other economies.

Lower all tax rates and remove all tax based incentives for all but the poor and small businesses. Too complicated for Hunt that

John Riordan
John Riordan
4 months ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

It’s the tax thresholds on income that are destroying the economy right now. The 40p band, if altered for inflation since 1997, would now be almost £100,000. It is wholly ludicrous that semi-skilled engineers and manual workers are paying tax at 40%, and it is this that is really what’s killing growth.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

It is not right wing anymore. Haven’t you noticed?

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago

Merely shuffling the deckchairs at this stage.
What does it say about the quality of Conservative MPs that they keep picking such poor leaders ?
It was fully known in advance that Theresa May was not a leader and not able to present or sell policies or campaign effectively at elections (everywhere she turned up to campaign in 2017, the Conservative vote went down – e.g. Halifax).
Liz Truss’ limitations were well understood.
It was fully known in advance that Rishi Sunak was not a real politician, not an effective leader and not someone who will enthuse his supporters and win over floating voters.
What’s the point ? Most of these Tory MPs aren’t worth saving.
Aside – I’m not sure what the problem with Kemi Badenoch being “confrontational” is supposed to be. Problem #1 for the Tories right now is getting even their traditional, loyal core support to vote for them. Wishy-washy trying to please everyone isn’t going to do that.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Interesting that you omit the utter charlatan Johnson, a thoroughly dishonest man who is on those grounds the worst of the lot. You know, the guy who liberalised yet further our immigration policy.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

But those are not the grounds on which my comment was made ! I was quite specifically commenting on leadership ability. It was you who chose to add in character, not me.
Johson, in spite of his many limitations, was actually a capable leader who could win elections and get stuff done (if only he’d been able to actually stick at things and not keep changing policies). He won the 2019 election easily – despite everyone knowing just how flawed he was (yes, we all did).
Truss and May were quite simply not leaders. Rishi Sunak isn’t either.
I forget who it was, but an astute commentator pointed out that the closest historical fit to Johnson was not Churchill (as he would have hoped), but Lloyd George – i.e. not a bad leader, though arguably not a good man.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

A good cheerleader but a bit bankrupt on policy. The one good thing he did have was supporting Ukraine as Putin theatened their death.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

My Tory MP is certainly not worth saving. Totally globalist in every way. Supports the WHA to take over the world’s health, besides being totally woke to the extreme. Britain is not Britain anymore.

Matt M
Matt M
4 months ago

Kemi, Kemi, Kemi!
Obvious choice.
Can’t get worse for the Tories might as well have a last throw of the dice on someone who at least has a bit of fight left in her and whose ideas chime with the public.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
4 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

To be very clear – I am not getting at you here.
What exactly is it that makes Kemi the obvious choice in your mind?
I’ve heard several people say that, but I have to admit I just don’t see it.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Whose Kemi? I know about Suella Suella Suella.

James Westby
James Westby
4 months ago

At this rate the Tories are going to achieve net zero (seats) much sooner than they anticipated…

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  James Westby

I do hope that some of the good ones will get in and that the bad ones go out. They have so many bad ones that they are unlikely to win the election. They still don’t get it even at this stage. I don’t think someone who doesn’t even know what a woman is will be any replacement.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
4 months ago

It seems that the best strategy for those Tory MP’s who are of the ‘right’ .. economically and socially … would be to resign the whip and do a deal with @Reform_uk
The Tories are physically split with the 1 Nation Tories in the majority … go now whilst you have a party to defect too

Rob N
Rob N
4 months ago

In theory that should work but not at all sure Reform are any improvement eg Danczuk and other PCs.
Still I will probably have to vote for them to make my protest.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
4 months ago

Must be April 1st

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
4 months ago

Is anyone surprised that Unherd have made literally zero comment about the fact that the Tories biggest donor is a racist scumbag?
I wonder how long this comment will last?!?!?

Tony
Tony
4 months ago

Who would that be?

Martin M
Martin M
4 months ago

What is needed is someone who can “save the furniture” (namely minimise the losses, and set Starmer up for being a single term PM). Not sure who that is though (I initially had homes Sunak might be right for the job).

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Nah. All talk and no action. A billionaire through his wife without the Trump push.

R Wright
R Wright
4 months ago

I wonder if those that deposed Boris Johnson knew this would be where the Tories ended up.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Boris was already haemorrhaging support. He was a pro mass immigration dishonest charlatan. It is Incredible to me the utter mediocrities whom so many Conservatives champion. But more fundamentally, they are now a completely and probably fatally divided party between a free market globalist majority and a national conservative minority.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Yeah. We will own nothing but be happy.

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

He wouldn’t have had the follow through anyway which he proved. Look what happened to NI. Left right in the lurch. History will expose his Covid policy which the Tories have still not admitted.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
4 months ago

There is a very obvious candidate who seems not to have been mentioned here so far, and indeed has more sense to step in the manure until after the election is lost. But he is on manoeuvres and profile raising in a big way.
Yes. Mr Gove thinks finally the time is coming.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
4 months ago

How can an article about British politics not have even a passing mention of Nigel Farage?

Tony
Tony
4 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Because it is not about him and he isn’t standing. We already know about his astute reasoning and great sound wisdom. He is better off doing what he is doing with all the honesty he brings to it.