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Voices: Who’s to say Sunak’s late embrace of the transparently absurd can’t turn things around?

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Is there ever a point at which the politics of make-believe has to make contact with reality? Or can you really just stay in your fantasy world for ever?

After the 10,000 or so Tory leadership debates, now begin the roughly 12 million hustings events all around the country. You would think that Liz Truss would be pleased that the first one is taking place in her hometown of Leeds but, unfortunately for her, she has spent most of the last month pretending it’s a complete s***hole, for reasons only she understands, so it’s possible that things might not work out that well.

But then, who of us can even know? Truss began her leadership campaign by dressing up as Margaret Thatcher for the first TV debate. She then spent most of that debate – and most of the other debates – talking about the deprivation in the place where she grew up; of how the people she knew, in her prosperous suburb in the prosperous city of Leeds, were all badly let down. Of how the comprehensive school she went to failed its pupils, letting their talent go to waste.

It’s an odd pitch, really. To slam the Thatcher government while literally dressing up as the late former leader. And also to have a go at your school for wasting the talent of its pupils, when it somehow managed to get you into Oxford, and here you are, on the verge of becoming the actual prime minister, despite having no discernible talent whatsoever.

Most polling indicates that Tory members would make Boris Johnson prime minister again tomorrow, given the chance. The last two leaders they were actually given the chance to vote for were both old Etonians – Johnson and Cameron – so why Truss thinks the way to win them over is to pretend that the country’s third-most-populous city was left to rot by her own political hero, when it demonstrably wasn’t – well, only she can know.

But then again, she’s right, isn’t she? She’s certainly winning by miles. Maybe she’s smarter than we think. The members are still deeply infatuated with the biggest and boldest liar in all of British political history, so perhaps she’s worked out that now’s not the time to make them go cold turkey by telling them the actual truth.

No, far better to treat them to what’s currently going on. A Tory leadership contest that is now not much more than the Two Yorkshiremen sketch, but with bitter anger, and absolutely no jokes whatsoever.

Truss, from Leeds North East – a “red wall” seat, she reckons, apart from the fact that it willingly voted for Thatcher every single time it was asked to. And Rishi Sunak, now of Richmond, North Yorkshire, but once a humble boy from a chemist’s shop in Southampton, who somehow made it to the big time with nothing but a loving family and the Winchester College blazer on his back.

That Sunak is doing so unimaginably badly in this contest is almost to the man’s credit. At least until now, he has simply been unable to do and say the things that are required to win over the members of his own party, because he knows them to be so utterly ridiculous.

This campaign has been going on for weeks. Yesterday, he announced that he would scrap VAT on energy bills to help with the cost of living crisis. Why only yesterday? Well, because he cannot possibly fail to be aware that he’s been asked about it several hundred times this year, when he was chancellor. He’s ruled it out every single time. He stood at the despatch box of the House of Commons, and explained that doing the thing that the Vote Leave campaign explicitly promised it would do, six years ago, would actually be the “wrong thing to do”.

It would, he said, benefit wealthier people disproportionately. So can you really blame him for clinging on for this long, until things were this desperate, to decide that, actually, he will do the thing that he’s clearly explained, dozens of times, would be wrong?

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There is, on the available evidence, at least a small part of Sunak’s brain that is aware that this leadership contest is only happening because the voters correctly concluded there was absolutely no way you could believe a word the last guy said. And that it isn’t necessarily wise, therefore, to pretend you grew up in a dump when you didn’t. Because, you never know, you might actually have to go and do a leadership hustings in said dump, and it might actually be quite nice.

That you can’t pretend you can cut taxes and everything will get better, because people can see very clearly that, to take but one example, the NHS is absolutely on its knees. And he really, really doesn’t want to have to announce new pledges that he is very clearly on the record as saying would be the wrong thing to do, and he’s kind of embarrassed about having to do that.

Current polling indicates that the Tory leadership contest is already over. That Truss’s lead is unassailable. But who knows? If the way to win is through the power of complete fantasy, through policies that either don’t add up or contradict absolutely everything you’ve ever said on the subject before, who’s to say Sunak’s late embrace of the transparently absurd can’t turn things around?

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