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Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Photo: No 10 / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The blue-on-blue battle between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to be the next Prime Minister is widening Tory divisions while offering no solutions to the crisis, writes Terina Hine

The next Prime Minister will be either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, and in the world’s oldest democracy, will be chosen by an unrepresentative 160,000 Tory members over the summer. If you haven’t had enough of the blue-on-blue battle already you are in for a treat. 

The gloves are off and Truss is storming ahead with a massive 24-point lead according to a YouGov poll of Conservative members. Even if the significant number of don’t knows all vote Sunak it will be difficult for him to beat the Truss momentum. Rest assured the fight back from Sunak will not be pretty. 

If we learned one thing from the line-up of hopefuls paraded before us so far it is that there is a complete absence of talent, intellect or integrity in the Tory party; Boris Johnson’s most enduring legacy may be his cabinet of fools and the junior ministers they enabled. The two left standing in this leadership race, both senior cabinet ministers, backed Johnson’s corrupt regime to the hilt. In Sunak’s case he cut his ties at the very last moment, while Truss remained faithful to the bitter end and beyond, still professing loyalty today. Hardly a fresh start or clean break.

The Tories are desperate for someone to repair the damage of the Johnson show, but the leadership race has created a destructive drama of its own, and if anything has made things worse. So much so that the last debate had to be cancelled. The frenzied briefings, vicious personal attacks, and now a civil service leak inquiry into how government documents about one of the contenders, Penny Mordaunt, made it into the press, have continued to batter the brand. Racist memes are doing the rounds and Mordaunt is out for revenge. Unedifying is an understatement.

The candidates take the electorate – be it the Tory 160,000 or the public at large – for fools. The remaining two have made insane accusations each accusing the other of being a socialist, obviously the highest insult in the book. Truss’s promise of an “aspiration nation” is as meaningless as it sounds, as if wishing economic success will make it come true. Sunak is in a race against time as the underdog, ballot papers may land before he has time to make up the distance. Although in this strange form of democracy the electorate can vote early and may vote twice. 

Already Sunak has tweeted “Liz is a socialist & a remainer whose economic plan is a fantasy #Madness”. Truss responded by blaming the former Chancellor, and other Tory Chancellors before him, for the economic mess the country is in, as though as a senior minister she bares no responsibility for the direction of her government or party.

Sunak is sullied by the fixed penalty notice he received for partygate. Savanta ComRes polling revealed that 39% of 2019 Tory voters oppose Sunak becoming PM because of his law breaking, while 46% of voters believe the Fixed Penalty Notice he received should bar him from No.10. The same members described Truss as “scary”. One Tory activist commented that the choice of Sunak or Truss “feels a bit like deciding whether to be shot or stabbed”. 

And Sunak also has the wrath of Johnson to counter. It appears the membership has already forgotten this leadership election is only taking place because of the damage inflicted by Johnson to the Tory brand. Damage that led to the loss of some of the safest Tory seats in the country, that led to a haemorrhaging of support in both the red wall and the true-blue shires. Incredibly 4,000 Tory members have petitioned the party to get Johnson back, so Johnson’s malice and wish for revenge – anyone but Sunak – may be a deciding factor.

Having little else to offer invoking the ghost of Thatcher is rapidly catching on: Truss relied on channelling her inner Thatcher by hitting the dressing-up box for her first national TV performance; Sunak described himself as a Thatcherite four times in one sentence in his latest Daily Telegraph article. Although ramping up their Thatcher credentials may appeal to the 160,000, it will be cold comfort to the rest of us, and that dress-up moment and well-penned piece will haunt the eventual victor when they face the wider electorate.

So who are these 160,000 king makers? According to Tim Bale, politics professor at QMUL, most are male, white, in their late 50s, with almost half getting close to or receiving their pension. They are comfortable rather than wealthy, based largely in the south of England – they are blue wall not red wall – are socially conservative on issues of law and order and immigration, although less anti-woke that often portrayed and more progressive on issues of race and gender than often credited – though the bar is admittedly pretty low. Tax, and its reduction, is their main priority, and they give no credence to redistribution, however they do appreciate the NHS.

Notably, they have no interest at all in cutting greenhouse emissions. According to a poll in The Times hitting net zero came bottom of a list of 10 priorities, well behind cutting personal taxes and hiking defence spending. So it’s no surprise that while the country burned no mention was made in the debates of the climate crisis.

The ability of the candidates or the membership to dictate the course of the election will be challenging. Events, dear boy, events: we face a summer of rampant inflation, pay disputes and strikes, and the climate crisis is playing out in real time in our own front yards. The smouldering anger of the general public will intensify, insulted by a public sector pay offer of 5% while inflation is predicted to rise to 11%. Yet everything urgent or difficult is being ignored by those who feel they have a divine right to govern. The government has ground to a halt, even Michael Gove said that "core functions" of government are not working. 

The Conservative party is entering the nastiest leadership fight in their history. Hopes to repair the Johnson damage lie in tatters; instead the party is imploding.

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