The threat of economic crisis could yet turn the tide in Rishi Sunak’s favour

It’s often said that Westminster exists in a bubble, deaf to life outside the M25. But if that was ever true, SW1 now looks positively on the money compared to the massed ranks of Conservative party members. The Bank of England’s doomsday forecast on Thursday – inflation rising to 13%, a long grim recession, rising interest rates and plummeting living standards – only confirmed what everyone involved in politics had been afraid was coming for months. But what were Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak asked as they roamed the country? Whether they’ll bring back grammar schools. How they’ll fight a “war on woke”. Whether Boris Johnson was shabbily treated. Meanwhile, neither candidate has demonstrated the sense of urgency you’d expect from someone applying to lead Britain through a full-blown national emergency. The gravity of the moment has somehow passed the whole contest by.

Sunak has come closest to acknowledging reality by arguing that cutting taxes now – the answer the Tory faithful always reach for, whatever the question – is unaffordable. Truss has sunnily told them what they want to hear, even suggesting at Thursday night’s Sky News hustings that this kind of recession isn’t inevitable, whatever the Bank says. As a result Sunak has become the “actually it’s a bit more complicated than that” candidate, struggling to explain without sounding patronising that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

Anyone who remembers how that ended for remainers in 2016, or Hillary Clinton up against Donald Trump, will have some insight into why Truss has been wiping the floor with him. But she’s also a better player of Conservative internal politics. Sunak did the right thing for his country and his party by moving against Johnson, but alienated a significant number of Tories who have subsequently convinced themselves Johnson could have somehow staggered on. Truss has merrily attacked Johnson’s government over everything from lockdowns to tax policy but because she stood by him in those final days, still isn’t seen as disloyal. But if Sunak was ever to have his moment, a chance to stop her runaway bandwagon, this is it.

At the height of the banking crash in 2008, with not just the Tories but Labour rivals nipping at his heels, Gordon Brown bought time by growling that this was “no time for a novice” in No 10. In a crisis, people become risk-averse. They seek leaders who know what they’re doing. Sunak is an ex-chancellor who has already navigated one once-in-a-lifetime crisis; Truss is a far less battle-hardened former chief secretary to the Treasury. She is the bolder but riskier choice for many Tories and while so far she has emphasised the boldness, this week the risks bubbled to the surface. Thursday’s interest rate rise significantly raises the cost of borrowing, on which her economic plans depend. She was forced to scrap her own regional pay policy after being accused of inflicting a pay cut on the north.

At the Sky hustings, she insisted that disowning her own policy was somehow an example of her honesty and straightforwardness. But a gimlet-eyed Kay Burley (never underestimate Kay Burley) gleefully listed all the things Truss once said she believed in – remaining in the EU, mass housebuilding, Britons going to fight in Ukraine – and has since renounced. Arguably the toughest question Truss faced was from the audience member who snapped: “We’re having this election because of poor judgment and trust. Why should we trust your judgment?”

The first question to Sunak, however, was whether he should just throw in the towel given how badly it’s going. Things have reached the stage where merely dragging himself out of the dressing room for another mauling must take some doing. But his answers were punchier, more confident than usual; asked why he turned on Johnson, he reminded the audience of the Chris Pincher scandal and effectively challenged them to defend it. He not only said Truss’s plans would worsen the crisis but accused her of making a mistake “which I am just going to correct” by suggesting that taxes, not inflation, were the cause of Britain’s ills. Will her supporters call that mansplaining? Maybe, but if so we need a new word for what happens when men are actually right. Interestingly the studio audience, at the end of the night, voted for Sunak.

The Conservative party of 2010 or even 2015 would have picked him over Truss. But the members who would have been most drawn to him then are also those most likely to have quit the party now, driven away by the Brexit Sunak himself backed and the post-truth politics it spawned. Are there enough of them left? We’ll have to wait until September to find out. What this country can’t wait another day for, however, is someone to get a grip on the economic horrors to come. Right now, that seems terrifyingly elusive.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist