Voices: The Tory leadership race has been genuinely awful – thank God it’s over

·10-min read
This farce simply should not be allowed to happen again. The nation has had little choice but to watch what has been a Potemkin election campaign (Reuters)
This farce simply should not be allowed to happen again. The nation has had little choice but to watch what has been a Potemkin election campaign (Reuters)

It was, in hindsight, very much over before it began. The now triennial summer Tory leadership contest had technically not begun on 5 July when Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid resigned from the cabinet within minutes of each other.

Later, Sunak would breezily reveal that the two of them hadn’t coordinated their action. Javid went first and, evidently panicking, Sunak felt he had no choice but to go second, 12 minutes later, or else someone else might get all the attention.

And yes, in hindsight, that moment reveals all. Not merely that Sunak was doomed from his Boriscidal moment, but also the manner of it. Rishi Sunak is a far superior person and potential prime minister than the opponent who has defeated him with almost no trouble at all. But he is, self-evidently, a far worse politician, in the purest, most cynical sense of the word. He fought a campaign that was poorly planned and strategically idiotic from before it had even started. And it ends in the dystopian hellscape in which we find ourselves, and which we will come on to in due course.

The early days of the contest, in the ever so slightly amended words of Thierry Henry, were not quite deja vu but more PTSD-induced flashback. The same little function rooms in Westminster were booked, like they now are, every three years, for the same little “launch” events.

In 2016, Andrea Leadsom launched her leadership campaign from a hot, sweaty side room in the Cinnamon Club restaurant, a few doors up from Westminster Abbey. Penny Mordaunt introduced her. In 2022, Penny Mordaunt launched her leadership campaign from a hot, sweaty side room in the Cinnamon Club restaurant, a few doors up from Westminster Abbey. Andrea Leadsom introduced her.

Tory MPs are self-indulgently familiar with these risible processes by now. The whittling down of candidates, the reading out of results by the 1922 Committee. (Once upon a time, at this point, writers of these kinds of articles had to stop and explain what the 1922 Committee is. These days, the Tory party soils itself in public with such metronomic regularity that the name of the once-obscure backbench committee that organises its internal elections has entered into common parlance.)

For a while, Penny Mordaunt was unassailable, principally because she was the least damaged by everything her more illustrious colleagues had been doing. But it didn’t last. Tory leadership elections, at least the stage that is decided by MPs, borrow heavily from the fetid tactics of the Oxford Union where most of them learnt their particular brand of very low rent magic. Friendly candidates run against one another to squeeze out others. Front runners eliminate rivals by lending votes to less threatening opponents before taking their support back again.

Michael Gove became convinced Kemi Badenoch was the answer. She turned out not to be. Penny Mordaunt went as quickly as she came. There are unconfirmed reports that someone called Rehman Chishti may or may not have been involved at one point but no one can say for sure, least of all Rehman Chishti, should he happen to exist.

The two of them have filled up the news channels for more than a month, while studiously ignoring all of the country’s enormous problems (Getty)
The two of them have filled up the news channels for more than a month, while studiously ignoring all of the country’s enormous problems (Getty)

That the Conservatives left the country leaderless during such a period of intense national crisis is a self-indulgence for which they should not be forgiven. There has been no bad luck involved. The country has been left leaderless entirely because the Conservative Party foisted such a terrible one upon it.

Tens of millions of people have spent all summer getting ever increasingly terrified by the tsunami of financial misery that is coming for them, and they have spent it howling into the void while a political party tends, as always, to its own problems first.

Rishi Sunak launched his campaign proper by announcing what was needed was an “honest conversation” about the problems the country faced. Two weeks later, he would be filmed addressing Tory activists in Tunbridge Wells, bragging about how he’d taken the money Labour had been sending to “deprived urban areas” and was instead funnelling it to areas like, well, Tunbridge Wells. It’s hard to tell how much of this was in any way true, not least as by the time he became chancellor Labour had been out of government for almost a full decade. He’s since claimed, quite angrily, that there are many deprived areas in the south as well as the north, and that’s what he meant.

But none of that really matters. On a personal note, I have been going to the same Turkish barbers for six years. They know I write about politics for a living and the only thing political thing that’s ever been mentioned to me, in the last not exactly quiet half-decade, is that terrible video of Rishi Sunak in Tunbridge Wells. Rishi Sunak is 42 years old, still 13 years younger than Keir Starmer when he even became an MP. He could have an entire career still ahead of him. But it’s very hard to see how that kind of thing does not leave him completely finished.

Liz Truss chose to base her campaign on her “track record of delivery”, with only the minor inconvenience that is a track record that only she was aware of. Six long weeks later, that situation has not changed. Her campaign launch began with an almost agonising 30-second-long wait for her to appear after she had been introduced, which turned out to be down to technical difficulties with her own private film crew, who had been hired to film her walking out.

“Trusted to deliver” was the big slogan. She has been in the government, under three prime ministers, for almost a full decade, and she will take over a country that closely resembles an out-of-control bin fire. She has also revised her opinions on Brexit these days, but she was nevertheless a reasonably key part of the worst political campaign of all time – namely the one that took the country out of the EU by mistake. Trusted to deliver what, exactly? Still, nobody knows.

People who knew Liz Truss at school and university have spoken of her being a ‘highly opinionated’ young woman, who took extreme opinions for attention (AFP/Getty)
People who knew Liz Truss at school and university have spoken of her being a ‘highly opinionated’ young woman, who took extreme opinions for attention (AFP/Getty)

This farce simply should not be allowed to happen again. The nation has had little choice but to watch what has been a Potemkin election campaign. Slogans, pledges, rallies, all over the news channels, and at the end of it there’s a new prime minister, with the only somewhat massive tweak to the format being that almost no one gets a vote.

The two of them have filled up the news channels for more than a month, while studiously ignoring all of the country’s enormous problems and focusing on the kind of insane rubbish that excites the mainly old and mainly wealthy people who get to choose who runs the country for the third time in six years.

Sir Graham Brady, whose job it was to organise the contest, admitted halfway through that it was going on too long. William Hague who, 20 years ago, changed the rules on how the Tory party chooses its leader, concluded a fortnight ago that, on this horrific evidence, it had clearly been a bad idea.

At first, barely a day went by without a new policy being announced, none of which so much as wafted a bat in the direction of anything that actually matters. Rishi Sunak reckons he was going to ban new properties being built on greenbelt land, a kind of ultra nimbyism that would make the UK’s future-ruining planning laws even more restrictive than they already are.

One day, Liz Truss was branding herself continuity Boris, the queen of the levelling up agenda. The next she was announcing a pay cut for all government workers outside London. This policy was dis-announced within hours and the media blamed for “deliberately misrepresenting” it when they had done no such thing.

As Martin Lewis went about the TV studios in an ever-increasing state of fear and rage about the rising energy price cap and its destructive impact, all Liz Truss could say was that she didn’t believe in “handouts”, and that the way to address it would be with “tax cuts”. People in a three-bed home are going to get a one grand gas bill in January, just for January. There are no tax cuts that can address that. Abolishing tax entirely wouldn’t make up the shortfall.

While these transparently absurd exchanges went on, water companies flooded the country’s coastal waters with actual human excrement. Normal families who could only afford a few days in Devon, spent them sitting on the beach, telling their children not to go in the water.

And while this went on, Boris Johnson mainly went on holidays of his own, one after the other after the other. Gordon Brown – remember him? – published a series of detailed proposals for how the crisis might be dealt with, providing a clear reminder, if nothing else, that things simply don’t have to be this way. Johnson, meanwhile, was pictured carrying a tiny child’s backpack while his nanny carried his actual children on and off aeroplanes.

Packing up: the removal van stands ready outside No 10 (PA)
Packing up: the removal van stands ready outside No 10 (PA)

We are led to believe that detailed proposals are coming. But the lack of them has already had consequences. Investment banks have made dire inflation warnings for the UK from next year, from 18 per cent to 22 per cent, far higher than the US or any comparable European country. They have done this because they cannot add any government plans into their modelling, because there are none. And these forecasts then chip away at the value of the pound, which is now at a near all-time low against the dollar. Political delinquency on this kind of epic scale is not cost-free.

People who knew Liz Truss at school and university have spoken of her being a “highly opinionated” young woman, who took extreme opinions for attention. People who have known her as a junior government minister, like the former chief secretary to the treasury, the Lib Dem David Laws, have spoken of her as having “mind-boggling ambition” but with not much else to back it up.

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Such characteristics have characterised the contest. She has spoken, many times, of the apparently terrible school she went to, where the children were badly let down, even though they somehow managed to get her into Oxford.

The whole thing has been light on actual policy announcements, to the extent where arguably the only bit that mattered came right at the very end. In Wembley Arena on Wednesday night, at the end of a long, uninspiring and largely pointless campaign, Liz Truss was gently coaxed by Nick Ferrari into promising, very clearly, that there will be no new taxes.

This, in the miserable years to come, will be a very difficult promise to keep. Politicians break promises all the time, but sometimes the consequences are severe. Her predecessor found he had no choice but to raise national insurance in an attempt not, actually, to fix social care, but merely so he could appear to come good on a promise he made outside Downing Street that was never actually true. Johnson could get away with this kind of thing because he has great reservoirs of superficial charm to draw upon. Nick Clegg, on the other hand, broke a promise on tuition fees and never recovered.

Liz Truss has no reservoirs, there is not so much as a puddle. Elections are very often decided by the reasonably large chunk of voters who pay no attention at all to politics and then decide a few days before which of the candidates they’d most like to go for a beer with. On the evidence of the last six miserable weeks, the country’s next prime minister is going to be drinking alone.