JOHN OXLEY, LONDON
??? Britain watches the pointless Tory leadership contest in quiet despair.
Nothing summed up the final rounds of the Conservative leadership election quite like the second televised debate. Part way through, the contest was abandoned after the presenter, Sky TV’s Kate McCann, fainted. (Don’t worry, she’s fine.) The moment was at once dramatic and mundane, just like the leadership contest.
The final rounds of parliamentary voting were entirely predictable. Tom Tugendhat, the sensible centrist with the detailed knowledge of foreign policy, became the fourth candidate to fall by the wayside. He was followed a day later by Kemi Badenoch, the young upstart whose surprisingly energetic campaign embraced the “war on woke.” Neither’s supporters moved as a uniform block, so for a moment or two there was some jostling for pole position. But when the votes were counted, the winners were exactly who everyone predicted before the week of Westminster horse-trading: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.
Now Sunak and Truss have begun the campaign to win over the party masses, an electorate of around 200,000 paid-up members of the Conservative Party. US readers will recognize this kind of contest from their state primaries—contested in the media, big organized hustings, small impromptu events in local Conservative clubs and donors’ houses. It’s a whirlwind tour.
And it’s largely pointless. From the outset, all the polling has shown Sunak to be unpopular with members and Truss leading by around two to one. In previous leadership elections, almost half of the votes were cast in the first week. Minds are very likely already made up and opinions are unlikely to shift. Truss will probably be carried home by a significant majority.
This isn’t to say she’s enlivening the contest. Neither candidate has inspired a wave of enthusiasm, even among the Party faithful. Sunak has discovered that his strengths—his family background, his intelligence and education, his technocratic chops—are also his weaknesses. He has undoubtedly led a life of privilege, doubly so since he made his massive fortune the old-fashioned way—he married it. His Stanford MBA and venture capital persona fails to connect with rural Tory voters or the pro-Brexit small towns in the north of England. Out of a desire to appear responsible and sensible, he has eschewed calls for immediate tax cuts, and has thus been unable to escape his reputation as a profligate tax-and-spender, which rubs most Tories the wrong way.
Truss, on the other hand, has veered between selling herself as the heiress of Boris Johnson and the second coming of Margaret Thatcher. Of all the candidates, she’s been least critical of the outgoing prime minister, and she’s picked up a lot of his most prominent supporters. She’s stressed her affinity with Thatcher by emphasizing the parallels in their lives, even dressing quite a lot like her for campaign appearances. She’s combined this with calling for (unfunded) tax cuts and promising a wave of deregulation to free up economic growth, but there’s no reason to think her numbers add up. She plays up her excitability and her Westminster nickname, “the human hand grenade.” (She claims she received it because she blasts through barriers.)
When you talk to Tory members, you sense they’re trying to figure out who’s the least bad option. Both candidates seem adrift in the face of the challenges the country faces. Both were in government in the decade after the global financial crisis—Truss for almost all of it, Sunak since 2017. During that time, they’ve failed to find a solution to Britain’s flatlining productivity and wage growth or the short- and long-term price rises that have accompanied it. The median Brit’s income is now closer to the average Romanian’s than the average American’s, and the average price of a house is now nine times the average salary. This winter, home fuel costs for the average family could hit over £400 per month (US$487). Petrol costs about £1.90 per liter (US$10.45 per gallon).
A decade of austerity and the impact of Covid have caused public services to creak. The NHS has a record backlog. London’s police force has been placed in special measures after a series of scandals. Railways and public transport networks have been beset by strikes, with further walk-outs to come in telecommunications and postal services. Doctors and teaching unions are preparing for industrial action.
COLUMN: London only avoided a blackout last week by paying a record high £9,724.54 per MWh (more than 5,000% higher than the typical price) to briefly import electricity from Belgium due to traffic jams on the power grid | #EnergyCrisis https://t.co/LOSIFk3Kip
— Javier Blas (@JavierBlas) July 25, 2022
EXCL: This is the NHS as you’ve never seen it.
19 patients crammed on trolleys in corridors unable to get into a full A&E.
92 year-old May has been stuck on hers for 3 days.
Outside, ambulances queue, delayed getting to other calls.
— Paul Brand (@PaulBrandITV) July 27, 2022
Neither Truss nor Sunak really seems to have the answers. Most of the time, they seem oblivious to the problems ahead. The winter crunch on the cost of living is apt to be overwhelming for those on lower and middle incomes, yet they’ve offered little by way of suggestions save for vague proposals to cut sales taxes and make small grants, ideas that pale compared with the scale of the problem. Over the horizon lies the risk of a second decade of stagnation. A recent report suggested that by the middle of the coming decade, the average Brit will be poorer than the average Pole. Pessimists envision Britain becoming Italy, without the weather or the food.
All of this points to the Conservative Party’s defeat in the next general election. Though the party’s polling has improved since Boris was ousted, neither candidate seems like its electoral lifeline. If Labour fails to win, or at least form a minority government, it will only be because Conservatives have structural advantages in boundaries and vote distribution. The Tories have lost vote share among under-forties, ethnic minorities, and women; it has become the party of older homeowners. Even though it’s poised to deliver either the UK’s third female or its first non-white Prime Minister, it’s hard to see how this will change.
The Conservatives seem trapped in the intellectual doldrums, unable to shed their managerial declinism and unworkable populist reflexes. They’re shy to acknowledge and even shyer to solve the pressing problems the country faces, perhaps because they’ve been in power now for twelve years. The leadership contest, so far lackluster and underwhelming, has shown no sign of shaking loose the zeal required to change this.
Over the next six weeks, the party faithful will cast their votes. There will be no great shift in opinion, nor much of a debate worth having. Probably Truss will win, her own enthusiasm not matched by the voters. Then she will face the challenge of managing a party and a country that feels very much like it’s on the slide.
Watch the debate to see what all the lack of excitement’s about:
John Oxley is a writer in London.