Do the Conservatives intend to appear ungovernable?
Each candidate to succeed Truss has until 2 p.m. Monday to round up nominations for the 100 MPs to be considered.
Truss’s replacement would appear to be his defeated leadership rival, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, with the most support so far. As a fiscal conservative, Sunak predicted that Truss’ tax cuts would spook the markets. And like the majority of Conservative Party members, he, unlike Truss, backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum. city of London.
During Truss’ time of turmoil, Sunak wisely kept his head down and refrained from the temptation to say “I told you so”. Surely that makes him a plausible candidate for unity, capable of stemming the inevitable Tory losses in the next election.
Yet Sunak and his rivals have to reckon with the new “paranoid style” of conservative politics, which, like its American counterpart, sees establishment conspiracies everywhere. As a former Goldman Sachs banker, Sunak will be accused of plotting to sell his party and his country to international financiers, with the intention of building “Davos-on-Thames”. Although he is a Brexiteer, he will also be tasked with “placing” Europe if he seeks a necessary accommodation on trade with Brussels.
Even Truss, a new Brexit convert, was accused by the Tory right of embracing the ‘wet rest agenda’ when she scrapped much of her tax cut agenda and named a former supporter of EU membership, Jeremy Hunt, as second chancellor. . How will Sunak get away with the conspiracy traffickers? Some MPs have not even forgiven him for his role in the downfall of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Another possible candidate, the third leadership contestant last time, Penny Mordaunt, is a likeable performer who replaced Truss after an embarrassing no-show in the House of Commons this week. Despite her strength under fire, she has yet to show many signs of fighting the serious challenges facing the country. If Mordaunt won the contest, she would find her worst enemies sitting next to her in the House of Commons. At the party’s annual conference in Birmingham a few weeks ago, I heard her described as ‘the Manchurian candidate’, after the Cold War thriller about a brainwashed sleeper agent operating in the West. Mordaunt’s liberal views on trans issues are anathema to moral conservatives.
It is fashionable to compare the recent revolving door policy of the UK to that of Italy. If the third possible contender, Boris Johnson, returns, then comparisons to Silvio Berlusconi, the man of many recalls, will also become irresistible. However, it cannot even be certain that ‘Boris-coni’ will turn up: he wasted his first chance to become the post-Brexit Tory leader by taking time off from the political arena for the cricket ground.
Still, Johnson would be second only to Sunak in terms of MP nominations. His return from vacation in the Caribbean at this time of crisis is eagerly awaited. His natural allies are MPs in marginal seats in the North and Midlands captured from Labor in the last election, but many other Tories also believe Boris still has the ‘X’ factor needed to save their party from oblivion electoral.
On the negative side of the ledger, Johnson was expelled just three months ago after nearly 60 members of his cabinet resigned in protest at his chaotic style of government and the Partygate scandals. More than four in 10 of his own MPs said they had no confidence in his leadership, and a powerful House of Commons committee is now investigating his ethics. As former Conservative leader Michael Howard said on Thursday, if Johnson takes the stage again, it’s unclear where his “psychodrama” will lead next. Two Tory MPs have already threatened to ditch the party whip if he returns to Downing Street. The former Prime Minister is hardly the candidate for stability.
The cracks in the Conservative electoral coalition will be hard to conceal for even the most skilled leader. In 2019, Johnson attracted new voters who supported Brexit, opposed high levels of immigration and took on the Conservative Party in the “culture wars”. But they also favor higher taxes to pay for more health and education spending. The economic right, which last split its allegiance between Truss and Sunak, wants low taxes, a smaller state and higher levels of immigration to relieve the tight labor market. No wonder a majority of Brexit voters switched allegiance to the Labor Party.
A large contingent of Tory MPs have made clear their opposition to cuts to public spending and social benefits. They forced Johnson and Truss into spectacular U-turns. In the leafy south, Tory MPs oppose any new building in their constituencies and have also made the government concede. Truss’ “anti-growth coalition” included much of his own party. His successor will have a hard time convincing the conservatives that they cannot benefit from lower taxes, higher public spending, rapid economic growth and planning constraints. This is a recipe for disaster.
If they continue to undermine their fifth prime minister in six years, the Tories will deserve to be wiped out in the next general election, due in two years. And unless the infighting stops, the popular clamor outside Westminster for this election will become a deafening roar. Don’t underestimate voter anger at Conservative Party games.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.
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