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We all know that people can be unpleasant on social media but the vitriol within the Conservative tribe in this leadership election is still arresting. Take, for example, the reaction on Twitter to the show of hands in Rishi Sunak’s favour by the studio audience after the Sky News interviews with the candidates.
Plainly, there were reasonable questions to be asked about how an audience that was intended by the broadcaster to consist of undecided Conservative Party members turned out to include several people who were committed Sunak supporters from the start.
But the reaction from people brandishing “Never Rishi” hashtags, calling the former chancellor a “snake” or a “backstabber”, many of whom claimed to have a vote in this election, is reminiscent of Corbynite denunciation of Blairites in recent Labour history.
A consistent theme is that of a media conspiracy against the true values of the party, in which “Sly News” is in cahoots with the biased BBC, ITV and Channel 4. It goes without saying that The Independent is part of the plot, and in other waves of social media hostility to Sunak he is described as the candidate of the World Economic Forum. (The WEF stages those elite talkathons in Davos in between secretly running the world.)
Obviously, Twitter is not the real world, except that MPs are on it, and the poison has spread. Angela Richardson, a Sunak-supporting MP, publicly exclaimed “FFS!” and muted Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, for being rude about Sunak’s Prada shoes. Simon Hoare told Michael Fabricant, a Liz Truss supporter who made fun of Sunak’s ready-made graphics, to “keep your hair on and your hypocrisy to yourself”.
Another way in which Tory Corbynism is like the Labour version is that it is a grassroots movement against the majority of MPs. But in modern parties, leaders are chosen by members, so Truss is merely responding to the incentives of the system by adopting poses that most Tory MPs find uncomfortable.
This explains why she condemned the Treasury’s “abacus economics” in an interview yesterday. The language of Tory Corbynism, just like the Labour original, requires an assault on the “failed” establishment consensus and talk of no more “business as usual”. The Tory version requires the symbols of “true Conservative values”, such as tax cuts, just as the Labour version requires homage to public ownership.
Hence Truss’s response yesterday to a question about further help for energy bills: “The way I would do things is in a Conservative way of lowering the tax burden, not giving out handouts.” This isn’t necessarily a guide to what she would do in government. Any member of the reality-based community knows that the people hardest hit by rising gas and electricity prices are pensioners and benefit claimants, so tax cuts are no good to them. Whoever is in No 10 in September will have to announce more help through “handouts” unless they want to be responsible for mass misery on an epic scale.
Therein lies the truth about the coming pivot. Truss has so far shown a ruthless understanding of how politics works. Any of her past positions that are not needed on the voyage have been thrown overboard in her quest to appeal to the electorate that chooses the party leader. If it takes a Tory Corbynite to get elected, that is what she will be. But how politics usually works is that you say one thing to the base to get elected, and then switch to policies designed to appeal to floating voters in a general election. In the US, this is the familiar difference between primary and general elections.
I think we can assume that Truss will switch on 2 September, the moment the ballot closes, three days before the result is announced on 5 September. She will suddenly adopt all the positions that Sunak has been trying unsuccessfully to sell to a Tory Corbynite audience. The only question is how skilfully she makes the transition.
Without a window into her heart, I would say that on the balance of probabilities she is not going to persist with Tory Corbynite policies if they interfere with her attempt to maximise the chances of defending the government’s majority at the general election, which she said yesterday would not be this autumn – although that promise would be ditched too in the unlikely event that she could be sure of winning it.
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So the “tax cuts” in the emergency Budget that her chancellor will announce (21 September has been pencilled in as a possibility) are likely to be tokenistic, intended – as Sunak’s were – to be down payments on the promise of jam tomorrow. The main business of the Budget will be handouts through the benefits and pensions systems to try to avert the worst of price rises for vulnerable people.
She cannot afford to allow the Tory civil war to continue to rip through the party, so she will have to have a share of Sunak supporters in her government and she will try to stop her proxies from engaging in personal attacks on other Tory MPs. But equally, having unleashed the demons of Tory Corbynism, she will want to avoid explicitly repudiating the small-state zealotry of her campaign.
She won’t be helped by Boris Johnson, who will feel no obligation to restrain a running commentary on decisions he will claim he wouldn’t have taken had he still been in No 10. And it is the nature of the Corbynite worldview that leaders will betray the sacred truths, so she will be condemned as a sellout even if she executes the U-turn more elegantly than some of her recent reversals.
The big U-turn is coming, however, and the fate of her government depends on the skill with which she manages it.