The race to replace Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party and thus Prime Minister has quickly turned into a Rorschach test designed to uncover all the different ways in which Britain’s Tories are miserable.
In Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister, Conservative party members see a man who was disloyal to Johnson by leading the exodus of cabinet officials that ultimately led to Johnson’s downfall earlier this month. Worse still, they see him as being unfaithful to the very principles of what it means to be a conservative. In Liz Truss, the current Foreign Secretary, they see a decaffeinated Margaret Thatcher ready to do anything to gain power.
Polls suggest either would lose the next general election.
Britain’s ruling party came to this sad ultimatum as Boris Johnson inadvertently fired the starting gun for a new leadership race when he shot himself in the foot over the latest scandal of sexual assault to lead the party. His mismanagement gave Johnson’s fellow Tories the perfect excuse to tell him he had to leave out of decency, saying their sudden loss of patience with him had nothing to do with the damning results of the recent election, which showed that their party could be on its way to the opposition benches in Westminster if still in charge at the next general election.
Johnson has become the latest victim of an age-old Tory tradition of bringing down their own leader while in government. Now the UK will need a new Prime Minister. You might think that such a vital democratic question would be answered by the British people at a general election, but no. Instead, for the third time since 2016, it will be up to around 200,000 Conservative Party cardholders to decide who gets the unchecked power to rule over the UK’s 67 million people.
Conservative MPs (MPs) have already narrowed an initial field of nine potential leaders to just two. Sunak and Truss will now hit the road, campaigning across the country and participating in televised debates before either of them is crowned leader on September 5.
The feuds between the wider pool of candidates in the early debates were so bad that party elders canceled the final debate so the rest of the country couldn’t watch the Tories tear each other apart and trash their record in power live at the television. There are hopes – but no guarantees – that the one-on-one version will produce less fireworks.
The problem is that most Conservative lawmakers and party members are far from thrilled with the bottom two, or even the way the nominees were chosen.
“This particular contest has been nasty, vicious, personal and has nothing to do with politics,” said John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, a grassroots organization that aims to make the party more democratic. “Politics have been pushed aside so all those personal ego journeys MPs ride on have come to the fore. It’s an absolute shame. It is a parody of democracy. The 80-year-old party veteran, a Conservative member since 1964, said he would vote neither for Truss nor Sunak. But he has no lost love for Johnson, whom Strafford calls “the worst Tory leader of my life”.
Just a few months ago, mega-buck Sunak was a national hate figure. His support in the polls plummeted when it emerged he held a US green card – essentially declaring himself a permanent resident of America for tax reasons – even when he was UK finance minister and, uh, he was rising everyone else’s taxes. It also emerged that his wife had said his wife – who has an estimated $835million stake in her billionaire father’s company – had claimed special tax status for UK residents whose permanent home is overseas. .
And Truss is certainly not without its drawbacks. She is seen in parts of the party and public as insignificant and has accumulated her own self-sabotage embarrassments. In January, she had to admit to spending $600,000 of public money on a private jet trip to Australia. And she has also been repeatedly called out for deliberately trying to impersonate Tory heroine Margaret Thatcher in an unseemly photo op campaign that spanned years. (Note that the footage of Sunak also generated some shock – it’s hard to fathom how short he really is – 5ft 6 – until you see him standing next to another human being. )
A video of Truss giving a scathing speech at the 2014 party convention also went viral endlessly during the leadership campaign. “Truss knows nothing about economics,” a former Tory cabinet minister told The Daily Beast. “She is completely wacky and weird. I think it would be totally overwhelmed.
Reports also emerged in the British press accusing Truss of deliberately leaking documents to the press intended to embarrass his opponents during the leadership race. Some party figures fear that Truss will be able to appeal to Tory members enough to win the race, but would then drive the Tories to ruin in the planned general election of 2024. “The question is whether Sunak can cut and seduce members enough or if, in his own easy way, Truss can pull it off, and we end up with an absolute five-star disaster,” one veteran lawmaker said. “It’s pretty grim. I think we’re heading into opposition at this rate.
Incredibly, there is even a contingent of Tory members and lawmakers who oppose both Truss and Sunak because they believe the best person to be the next Tory leader and Prime Minister is Boris Johnson. “There was almost a coup to get rid of Boris,” Tory lawmaker Michael Fabricator told The Daily Beast. The staunch Johnson supporter says he believes Britons are frustrated that the Conservative party has become “like lemmings jumping off a cliff. Why are we doing this instead of continuing to run the country? It’s completely self-indulgent. Fabricator supports Truss due to his dislike of Sunak, informed in part of what Fabricator calls “the loyalty problem”, i.e. Sunak’s betrayal of Johnson.
If the polls are to be believed, however, Sunak certainly seems less popular with conservative members than Truss, in part because of his policies, which some say aren’t conservative enough. Critics have attacked his record as British chancellor or finance minister. Truss likes to point out that under his watch, the tax burden is at its highest level in 70 years. Government borrowing also soared as economic activity slumped during the COVID shutdowns. Worse still for Sunak’s credibility in Downing Street, he is the only leadership candidate to refuse to promise tax cuts if he becomes prime minister. Thank goodness he voted for Brexit in 2016 – unlike Truss – otherwise he would totally disagree with Conservative sentiment, according to the wisdom received. Although even on Brexit, Truss appears to be favored by diehard Eurosceptics since she scored a total of 180 on her former pro-EU stance.
“The person with the real understanding of politics who was the class act in some respects was Rishi,” said Lord Henry Bellingham, a former Tory lawmaker who now sits in the House of Lords, speaking the morning after saw Sunak and Truss vying for support. to an electoral campaign for the conservative lords. “I think Rishi’s big problem is that he’s the chancellor presiding over some pretty big tax increases. He explained to us exactly why he had to do it, and he also made it very clear to us that he is instinctively a low-tax conservative, but still has a ways to go. [prove] this.” Bellingham, who will be voting for Truss, adds, “I think Liz is going to win because she has more support among party loyalists. On the other hand, if these general public polls indicate that Rishi has more chances of winning elections in the fight against [Labour leader Keir] Starmer more likely to save UK in terms of challenge [Scottish First Minister Nicola] Sturgeon, so I think that will be a factor.
Even with Truss ahead at the moment, everything remains to be played before the September result. It remains to be seen to what extent the Conservative Party is damaged to get there. As one former minister put it, the wider electorate is not at all impressed by the “cheap and superficial judgments” used in the race to know who is and is not a real Conservative, as the country faces a series of truly monumental challenges.
“I mean, we’ve reached the point where people are saying, ‘Fuck, there are much bigger issues,'” the conservative insider said. “We have a global commodity crisis, we have the war in Ukraine, we have social deprivation and people can’t pay their bills. These narrow judgments are designed only to appeal to factions of the Conservative Party and are potentially disastrous for the party in government.