As the contest between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak for the leadership of Britain’s Conservative party draws to a close, the last hustings meeting was held in London.
If you were looking for uplift, this was not the place to be.
Frontrunner Truss played it solid, safe and not terribly inspiring. Sure there were clear signals towards better policy – a preference for tax cutting over directed expenditure, a desire to bring more market signals into energy policy, better post-Brexit regulatory policy, and so forth – but then Boris wavered when the heat was on.
So her supporters need a dose of hope or trust to see her as a PM for tough times. Although as Lord Frost, one of Boris’s disappointed backers, says, hopefully:
“… as we have discovered, it’s hard to know who is really up to the job of prime minister until they actually do it”.
Slick Rishi – with his miniscule chance of taking the job – took the opportunity to steal the show. Who else could make a dozen thank yous during opening applause sound humble – and then kick off with “I want to start by saying – thank you”.
He spoke with sincerity of public service and fiscal responsibility. The changes he will bring to government will be competence, seriousness, decency and integrity (did you get that Boris?).
There could be no doubt about his confidence in his evident talents: “I can steer us through”.
As one of Keith Holyoake’s political opponents was said to have said “Christ, I could almost vote for the old bastard”.
But it seems they won’t.
When the policy of letting Conservative party members choose the leader was introduced, few would have imagined a situation where they would be choosing a fourth PM in less than six years. Fewer still would have foreseen the extent that it would bring party principles and policy into the process.
But it doesn’t seem to made it easier for the parliamentary party to unite. Even before the Truss coronation, former heavy-hitter and Sunak promotor Michael Gove declined the opportunity to confirm he would support her first budget, while Boris showed his old form with a rousing demand to build, build and build nuclear power stations, while warning Truss not to expand UK natural gas production.
(As an aside to this, it was impressive to see Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey piously adding that “energy bills are a lot higher now than they ought to have been because of the Conservative’s failure” when he knowingly baked high prices into policy as climate change minister in an earlier coalition government).
But brutal personal differences in unhappy political conditions hardly make for unity. Rishi made it sound possible by not addressing the most pressing issues.
Lord Frost put it better than most when he focused on the need to recognise policy trade-offs and then make the right (i.e., the hard and unpopular) choices, on Covid, energy security, health system capacity and housebuilding:
“The best way to deal with these dilemmas is not to pretend they don’t exist or there is some magic way out, but set them out and explain why the government has chosen as it has. Be open with people. Explain we can’t have everything. If even the Conservative Party seems to suggest that magic solutions work, the risk is the electorate turns to the authentic purveyor of illusions, the Labour Party.”
That task brought down Boris. Rishi would say trust my brilliance. Perhaps Liz’s lack of magic will leave her no alternative.