Padraig Colman, in The Island, 31 July 2022, where the title reads “The Tory Leadership Battle”
British voters have been watching with growing irritation/apathy the contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party fighting with each other on TV. The session on July 26 ended abruptly when presenter Kate McCann literally became unconscious. Many viewers had already lost the will to live.
In December 2019, Boris Johnson won 365 seats, a record majority of 80, in the Commons. This represented 43.6% of the popular vote, the highest percentage for any party since 1979. Johnson was eventually forced to go because Tory MPs could no longer tolerate the lying and cover-ups. The final straw that destroyed the man of straw was the predatory activities of deputy chief whip Chris Pincher (he had drunkenly groped two men at a club) and Johnson’s failure to act. Pincher remains an MP and continues to write his wine column for the Critic magazine.
People had been waiting for so long for Johnson to resign that they did not at first notice that his “resignation” speech of July 7 was not what it seemed. He did not resign as prime minister, just as Conservative Party leader. He planned to hang around like a bad smell until a new party leader was chosen on September 5.
Five candidates were reduced to two after a number of ballots of the 365 Conservative MPs. Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose resignation precipitated Johnson’s demise, is one of the remaining contenders; foreign secretary Liz Truss is the other. The members of the Conservative Party across the UK will choose between them. Roughly 180,000 Conservative Party members will decide the next leader of the UK. They are mostly old, posh, white, male, southern and very Eurosceptic. A close ally of David Cameron described them as “mad, swivel-eyed loons.” Around 0.3 per cent of the UK electorate will decide who the next prime minister will be. The turnout could be even lower because all the interesting candidates have gone. The fact that the general public does not have a say skews the whole process into irrelevancy.
Early on, Truss organized a press conference which got off to an uncomfortable late start because she could not find the door into the room. Her answers were not fluent because she panics when departing from a prepared script. At the end of the interview she could not find the door to get out of the room. She should have practised with a paper bag.
The first televised debate, organized by the ConservativeHome website, was a pallid affair with robotic performances and technical glitches. They clearly decided to liven it up a bit for the subsequent Channel 4 and ITV debates. Things turned so nasty that a planned Sky News debate was cancelled. Viewers were reminded that the Tories are not called “the nasty party” for nothing. A special nastiness is dedicated to colleagues. This has been a gift to the Labour Party. An attack ad prepared by the opposition, simply featuring quote after quote from the contenders in the debate, attracted more than 3m views online. Raphael Behr wrote in the Guardian: “There is no ballast of gravitas to level out the swagger, so it comes across as playground bragging, or the overcompensating neurosis of careerist nerds, fast-tracked too young into high-ranking ministerial offices.”
Sunak has been the smoothest performer and was front-runner when it was MPs voting. He claims he is the only one who can beat Keir Starmer in a general election. Clare Foges in the Times wrote: “It was a joy to see a first-class brain like Sunak’s in action. He was simply more fluid, more impressive, more obviously a prime minister in waiting.” Liz Truss has performed very poorly, admitting, “I might not be the slickest presenter on this stage”. She makes a virtue of ineptitude. “What you see is what you get.” I see it and I don’t want it. However, focus groups have indicated that Truss might have a point in that the fact that she is not slick is seen as a strength outside the political wonk bubble. Seven in ten Britons say they feel looked down on by those in politics and the media — being told they’re making the wrong choices risks making that worse.
Despite Sunak’s superior performance, Truss is now the favourite. Her main thrust is a Gota-like mania for cutting taxes. Sunak also wants to cut, but not yet while inflation is raging. She wants less tax and more spending at the same time. The OBR (Office of Budget Responsibility) warned that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, saying that Britain’s finances were on an “unsustainable” long-term path; the debt burden could treble without tax rises to cover the mounting cost of an ageing population. Experts point out that the UK has one of the lowest tax burdens in Europe. Growth is supposed to make up for lost taxes but where is it? Will she borrow money to cut taxes?
The OBR has estimated a 4% drop in UK growth since Brexit, which the FT calculates as £40bn in lost tax revenue every year. Just over half the electorate now think leaving the EU was a mistake. Sunak is being painted as a closet Remainer (or even socialist) despite the fact that he was espousing the Brexit cause in pamphlets when he was 16. Truss shows all the zealotry of a convert, but not so long ago, during the referendum campaign in 2016, she claimed Vote Leave was based on lies and Remain was going to win. This raises questions about her authenticity -are her other positions mere poses?
According to a Tory strategist, “The problem for Sunak is that he has the manner and the behaviour of a Remainer. He doesn’t have the revolutionary zeal of Truss.” Those who supported Remain in the Brexit referendum are backing Sunak, while Leavers overwhelmingly back Truss. This is despite the fact that Sunak campaigned for Leave while Truss was a Remainer.
Truss complains that a hospital in her constituency is held up on stilts. The party of government behaves like an opposition party attacking itself viciously for its appalling record in government. Candidates seemed to be saying never vote for the party again, both of them reflecting on what a poor state the country is in after 12 years of Tory rule, describing what they would do to fix the shambles they had created. The former chancellor complained that energy bills “are doubling” and inflation is at a “40-year high” as though he had not been in charge of the economy for the past two years. Truss blamed him for the “highest tax burden in this country in 70 years” and the “lowest growth in the G7”. Every week at prime minister’s questions, Johnson has been telling us the UK has the fastest growth in the G7. Could he have been lying? Perish the thought!
Sunak pledges to put the government on a “crisis footing” from day one if he becomes prime minister because Britain is facing a national emergency over the economy, NHS backlogs and illegal migration under the Tory watch. By the time of a 2024 general election, the Tories will have been in power for 14 years. There will be an overwhelming public mood of being sick of the sight of them. I got sick of them a long time ago.
Although the Tories seem stale because they have been in government for 12 years, this has not brought a concomitant benefit of experience and competence. Sunak has spent just over seven years in the House of Commons. Having spent just over 12 years in the Commons, Liz Truss is also, by historic standards, very inexperienced. If she wins, she will be the sixth least experienced Premier ever.
People do not necessarily blame the government for inflation but they are running out of patience with a perceived lack of action. The UK is similar to Sri Lanka in that it has a political system that is inadequate for the times. Politicians are like ostriches burying their heads, ignoring the real problems and distracting themselves with tired old mantras. Whoever wins, as Martin Fletcher points out in the New Statesman, will be third consecutive prime minister “imposed on a sullen country by an increasingly discredited Conservative Party.” Almost like having a president nobody voted for.
AN INSERTION …. A FUN TIME for ALL MANNER OF CARTOONISTS: