Only two candidates are left in the race to be next leader of the Conservative party. Our panellists tell us who they think will win.
At least the winner can’t distance themselves from the past 12 years
I could always tell we’d miss Penny Mordaunt when she was out. No, just kidding. There was a sliver of danger, had she or Tom Tugendhat taken the leadership, that they’d make a plausible discontinuity argument, and all parties would walk into the next election as if the smouldering ruins of the past 12 years were no one’s fault. The injustice would have choked us. So it’s great to have avoided that.
It leaves the Conservative members in a vexed place, though, since all the polls – both legitimate ones, and more on-the-hoof affairs – pointed to that being exactly what they wanted, a clean skin. Instead, they’re faced with Rishi Sunak, technocratic, bloodless, never likely to be racist enough, or Truss, presented as Boris Johnson’s “continuity” candidate. Which she is, in the sense that she remained loyal and didn’t resign. But when are political parties going to realise that members are not circuit boards, who can have their components infinitely replaced and still light up the same way? Truss will never be the next Johnson, because she will never give people the same feeling. She knows as much, which is why she keeps dressing up as Margaret Thatcher, but she’s nothing like her, either.
So two candidates who look to the non-Conservative voter like genuinely eccentric propositions – an ex-chancellor so personally rich he reads like a walking conspiracy theory, a foreign secretary who communicates in lists of her own achievements – will read to the members like the most boring of the lot. I reckon Truss takes it, and I can’t wait.
Neither offers any economic solutions
Political parties have few organic links to the people they are supposed to represent. This is especially true of the Conservative party, whose members – overwhelmingly rich, old, white and male – will select the country’s next prime minister. It is maybe why the economic debate between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss seems so utterly removed from the reality of British capitalism today.
Truss’s Britannia Unchained slogans about £30bn-worth of tax cuts and slashed “regulation” are a break from Treasury orthodoxy about government borrowing. But they are irrelevant to the country’s unsustainable energy system, soaring child and elderly care costs, falling real wages (for all but the 1%), or the outsized profits driving inflation. The UK is already an outlier for its low corporation, income and capital gains tax. How would further cuts transform living standards now, when they haven’t in decades?
Sunak reheats Osbornite “pragmatism” on public borrowing. Yet while there is an immediate need to cut the cost of living by redistributing wealth and upgrading social infrastructure, there is no urgent necessity to cut the deficit. Long on slogans but short of substance, Truss can appeal to a membership base whose economic interests have long been secured. But for the broader UK population it is precisely that material security that is at stake.
Sunak has time to win over party members
This year’s Conservative leadership contest may be a first in modern times, in that the two candidates widely expected to reach the final two before it began have actually done so. Perhaps Rishi Sunak, having recorded the weakest first-place start in terms of vote share since the new rules were introduced after 1997, simply didn’t have the votes to spare to try to pick who made second place, as previous frontrunners have been accused of doing. But whatever the reason, we now know the rough shape of the contest: a fairly straightforward left-right clash between a high-tax fiscal conservative and a tax-cutting liberal.
At present, Liz Truss is the favourite to win the second round; Conservative party members are not, in the main, well-disposed towards high taxes, even in aid of the impeccably Tory goal of not funding day-to-day spending by borrowing. But a month is plenty of time for the former chancellor to turn things around. The foreign secretary has not proved a strong campaigner so far, and her central proposition – that warmed-over Thatcherism is what will hold the “red wall” in 2024 – is dubious in the extreme.
Sunak has his own problems, of course. His jibe at Truss in Sunday’s ITV debate was a serious misjudgment, given that millions of Tory voters are former Liberal Democrats and backed remain in 2016. But for now, he remains the candidate who seems more likely to reassure those voters that the Conservatives remain a sensible, acceptable option – and more than anything else, Tory activists want a winner.
It’s hard to see Truss throwing this away
Rishi Sunak has two months to convince the Conservative membership that they should mirror the support given to him by fellow MPs. The former chancellor may have won the most votes from colleagues in his leadership bid, but his opponent, Liz Truss is – at the time of writing – that bit more popular with the Tory base. It is they who ultimately get to decide the next prime minister of the UK. It’s difficult to see Truss throwing the contest within that time. Truss has already likely made any gaffe that would dash a counterpart’s chances.
Truss is an “ideologue without ideas,” as John Crace put it. Domestically, her plans are incoherent and impossible. The one area Truss excels at is image-making; perhaps the UK can look forward to its first wannabe influencer-premier. Yet if Sunak does sway enough support, what lies in store seems to be the promise of austerity, repackaged as “fiscal responsibility”. The most pressing issue of our present – the climate – appears low on the radar for both candidates. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer and Labour reportedly smell an opportunity to get their own tepid show on the road, seeing a Truss or Sunak premiership as a death knell for Tory chances in the next election. It would be a fittingly uninspired end to this era of rock-and-a-hard-place politics.
It ought to be Sunak. It could well not be
Welcome to act two of the tragedy of Boris Johnson. If polls of Tory members are to be believed, the next prime minister of the UK will be Liz Truss. Her limited experience of high office and the conduct of her leadership campaign are unedifying. They suggest a vain, cliched, pseudo-rightwing Tory, with no spark of charisma or originality. Her attempts to mimic Margaret Thatcher have been childishly embarrassing.
The decision of Truss versus Rishi Sunak now goes to a bizarre “selectorate” of the Tory party members. As of 2017, their average age was 57. More than half are over 60 and more than 70% are male. They live predominantly in the south of England. That the nation’s leadership should hang on this tiny unrepresentative group is a perversion of parliamentary democracy. It has long stipulated that the government of the country should be led by the person who commands majority support of the House of Commons.
That person is Sunak. He may also lack experience, but his performance at the Treasury during Johnson’s nightmare premiership suggests a man of sound judgment, caution and competence. He is the preference of most of his cabinet and MP colleagues as well as of opinion polls of the general public. He should be the next prime minister.
Johnson, who reportedly told his supporters to vote for “anyone but Sunak” is driven by malice and devoid of public interest. The only hope now is for Sunak to rise above this wretched fray and convince his party that he is its best chance of leading the economy through a looming recession and keeping Labour from power in 2024. It is a tall order. The outlook is grim.