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Voices: Have these Tory leadership hopefuls learnt nothing from the downfall of Boris Johnson?

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Kicking out a prime minister who won a massive 80-seat majority is quite a drastic thing for a party to do, especially when it appears to have taken the Tory party well under 24 hours to forget why it did it.

The main problem with Johnson was that, when faced with a difficult decision, or finding himself backed into a tricky corner, all he knew how to do was ease the pressure on himself by telling barefaced lies until the problem went away for a few seconds, the consequences of which could be worried about later.

He overpromised and underdelivered. It’s not merely that he pretended parties hadn’t happened, even though he’d attended them. What was just as damaging, in the end, was that everything was going to be “world-beating” – even when it didn’t exist. Government as a form of sociopathic narcissism had run out of road.

And yet, here we are, on what feels rather a lot like day one of the Tory party leadership contest, and they’re absolutely all at it.

There is hardly a candidate in the field, as things currently stand, that hasn’t already promised to cut taxes. Nadhim Zahawi reckons he’ll cut the basic rate of income tax twice over the next two years. Jeremy Hunt has promised to “cut all taxes”, just like he did three years ago. Liz Truss is going to “cut taxes from day one as prime minister”.

Do any of them possibly see a problem here? They are trying to replace the grandest fantasist of them all. The guy who would say, and do, almost anything if he could see political self-interest in it. And Johnson is an instinctive tax cutter. And so is the person currently most likely to replace him – Rishi Sunak.

And yet, when borne down with the realities of government, both these men, and especially Johnson, saw very clearly that there was a massive crisis in social care funding, that public services were on the brink of collapse, and they’d also just borrowed about £400bn to deal with Covid. And so, what did they do? They raised taxes.

Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s most recent budget was described, on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, as “the death of Conservatism” and not without good reason. They raised taxes to their highest level in 80 years, self-evidently because they felt like they had no choice.

Do Zahawi and Truss and Sajid Javid and everybody else not allow themselves just a moment’s concern that all they’ve done in their leadership campaigns is to make grandiose promises that the most I’ll-Say-Anything politician the country has ever had couldn’t quite bring himself to make?

Precious few people believe these tax cuts stand any chance of happening. But we will all be forced to go through the motions anyway. Of gathering in sweaty rooms for official leadership “launches”. Thus far the main highlight has been Penny Mordaunt having to edit hers to remove from his prominent position the convicted murderer Oscar Pistorius. And the fuss over that caused the British paralympic sprinter Jonnie Peacock to also “officially” ask to be removed.

Sajid Javid hasn’t even bothered to make another video, instead just republishing the 2019 one, because what could be more inspiring than that?

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Rishi Sunak’s expecting the whole country to be #ReadyforRishi. You would imagine the more important question would be Rishi’s readiness, as opposed to the rest of the country, whom he seems to think has some kind of obligation to prepare itself for his arrival.

Rehman Chishti, the former Labour councillor who’s been MP for Gillingham for 12 years, has also decided to have a go. On a personal note, I have been writing about Westminster for seven years myself, and this is the first time I have ever been required to type out his name. At least he is selling only the fantasy of himself, rather than fantasy economics.

Once upon a time, not that long after the EU referendum, Cameron and Johnson went for dinner together. Johnson is meant to have asked him, “What happened to you?” Cameron, as far as Johson was concerned, was an even bigger Eurosceptic than he was, but hadn’t had the courage to follow his conviction. Cameron’s reply was to tell him: “I grew up.” He understood, in other words, that the business of government involves rather more compromise than is ideal. That ideological convictions are a lot less important than the mundanities of people’s lives.

Absurd though it seems to say such a thing, from the available evidence, Johnson looks rather a lot like the grown-up. Whoever follows him will be in for a political rude awakening, and it will be ordinary people picking up the tab, yet again.

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