Conservative leadership rivals square up for a summer of sparring

As a boy growing up in Southampton, Rishi Sunak helped his mother do the books in her pharmacy. That formative experience, coupled with his deep-rooted belief in a small state and his polished TV performances, should make him a dream candidate for the Conservatives. But the former chancellor is currently trailing Liz Truss among the more than 160,000 party members who will choose Britain’s next prime minister. And I have been puzzling over why.

Trust is a big issue, according to the polls. There is some truth in the much-disputed cliché that he who wields the knife never wears the crown. My father, a life-long Tory, was furious when Michael Heseltine toppled Margaret Thatcher. He resented the disloyalty. But, crucially, he had never liked Heseltine because he was a “wet” — a moderate. Sunak, on the other hand, is what my father would approvingly have called “dry”: a fiscal hawk and a Brexiter. He would have loved him.

We don’t want the “new tunes”, failed leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt opined in her pitch to members: “we want the good old stuff”. Truss’ campaign is certainly playing the old hits — since becoming foreign secretary she has been photographed in poses modelled on Thatcher’s, and most recently copied one of her outfits on television. But party members should resist being rushed into assuming that she is another Thatcher — able to rise to the immense challenges the country faces — and Sunak is some kind of wishy-washy Heseltine.

The fog of war makes it hard to see clearly. Truss, a staunch ally of David Cameron in the Remain campaign, is now posing as the rightwing candidate, supported by the diehard Brexiters of the European Research Group.

Sunak voted Leave in 2016 and waxes lyrical about how to create post-Brexit jobs through free ports. Yet he is suffering from having tried, and largely failed, to rein in the wild spending urges of Boris Johnson, and for having attached tax bills to some of that spending. He believes, as did Thatcher, that you can’t have something for nothing.

“Framing the debate” is the buzzword of modern politics, a tactical manoeuvre that backs your opponent into a defensive posture — it’s the sort of thing slick young consultants talk knowingly about in Westminster pubs. One of the best practitioners is Lynton Crosby, who helped Cameron win a second term and Johnson win and keep the London mayoralty. A Crosby maxim is define your enemy, before they can hit back by defining you. The Truss campaign has portrayed Sunak as a hostage to “Treasury orthodoxy” and as the Brutus who knifed Johnson.

Sunak, meanwhile, has been exercising the kind of mature restraint that one would expect from — dare I say it — a prime minister. But his decency could soon start to look aloof unless he starts being pictured with farmers, pensioners and small business owners instead of behind his desk.

I have always had a soft spot for Truss. She is an awkward communicator, with a worrying tendency for gaffes, but she works hard and is far more intelligent than detractors allow. I am alarmed, though, by the glib statements about economic policy. Claiming that tax cuts would reduce inflation is, frankly, reckless. With interest payments on government debt hitting a record high in June, it is a very odd time to be arguing that the country should borrow more. Some of her claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. But if she were to acknowledge that the situation is complex, and agree with Sunak that tackling inflation must be the priority, she wouldn’t have the dividing line she needs to win.

Truss’ focus on economic policy is daring, because it brings the fight to territory on which Sunak is considerably more experienced. But it allows her to claim that she offers something new. Why get rid of Johnson, she asks, unless to change course? She wanted him to continue in office, she has claimed. But now he’s out, why not correct?

This is disingenuous. The biggest cause of Johnson’s downfall was Johnson himself. The self-inflicted mistakes and the pressure on ministers to support his evasions broke his MPs’ patience. The principal reason for removing Johnson was to restore honesty to public life, and rebuild trust in the Tories. Party members do feel loyal to Johnson, who won them a majority in 2019. But he barely began to implement the 2019 manifesto. Those who sign petitions to “bring back Boris” are a small minority. I’m sure Labour would love to attack Truss as one of the only people tin-eared enough to want Johnson still in power.

And power is, really, the point. Polls of ordinary voters show that Sunak is the only candidate who could beat Starmer at the next election, with Truss trailing. Labour will attack Sunak and his wife’s personal wealth. But his evident pride in his father-in-law’s business career feels sincere and very much part of modern Britain. Tory party members have never tended towards envy. Many are self-made, small businessmen, party insiders have told me. They tend to live in the shires and the west country, not in big cities. Part of Sunak’s problem, I fear, is that he may come across as too metropolitan.

If he’s not careful, Sunak will go down in history as another Ken Clarke or Roy Jenkins — a talented chancellor who couldn’t make it to the top job. He is going to have to appeal to hearts, not just minds. But he must ditch the slick imagery and be himself: the MP who represents farmers in rural Yorkshire; the boy whose father was a GP and mother was a shopkeeper; and who grew up balancing the books.

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