We felt euphoria on 7th July when Boris Johnson announced his departure. It was entirely predictable that this would be short lived. We might have hoped that, contrary to form, his party would move in a more enlightened direction. But such hopes were always naïve. The Big Brother-like elimination process saw off any halfway moderate candidates early on. The two who remain leave us scratching our heads and wondering whether a party with 357 MPs could not have done better.
Among the 150,000 or so Tory party members, no doubt there are some who think they are lucky to have a choice between Truss and Sunak. Some 2,000 are pleading to have Johnson back on the ballot paper, or threatening to write his name if it is not there. I’m not sure whether that says more about their naivety or about the truly dreadful choice with which they have been presented. And many members of that constituency will be looking for evidence of who among the candidates is most isolationist, inward looking and nativistic.
So what we can look forward to over the next few weeks is two candidates competing viciously to appeal to that tiny segment (0.25%) of the population by making promises on the economy, immigration, relations with Europe and human rights, promises which I hope the opposition parties are carefully recording and getting ready to play back in the run up to the next general election, when at last the people of the UK, who are as a whole much more enlightened, will be able to make up their own minds whether such policies are really what they want. And if what we have seen so far is anything to go by, we can look forward to more debates in which both candidates knock chunks out of each other and generate damaging footage for Labour to use in the future party political broadcasts.
Let’s just imagine that you are a fairly enlightened Tory party member casting your vote. I have it on good authority that there are such people. You look at the opinion polls (Truss 24% ahead) and the bookies’ odds (Truss 9/4 on) which at the moment are pointing towards a Truss victory. You are not entirely surprised, knowing that you are part of an electorate which is not even typical of Tory voters, never mind the population at large, being well-heeled, predominantly over 60, strongly tempted by tax cuts for the wealthy, and very far from being colour blind. You look at Liz Truss’s CV and realise that she is by far the more experienced politician of the two, having already been a minister when Sunak (and indeed Starmer) was elected for the first time in 2015. Over a number of years, she has worked at Education, DEFRA, the Treasury, the Justice Department, the Department of Trade and the Foreign Office. And she does not have the baggage, as Sunak has, of a police conviction for breaking Covid rules together with Boris Johnson.
Never passed up an opportunity to fail
With all the high offices she has held list she has had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate competence. Not a bit of it. It was she, as justice secretary, who allowed the Daily Mail to get away with labelling justices of the Divisional Court, in the Miller case, “enemies of the people”. She may have disagreed with the Court’s ruling, but she had an obligation to act, and I’m not sure whether her failure to do so was a result of fear, incompetence or an intention to undermine public respect for law and order.
As the UK’s trade negotiator she made countless rollover deals which were no better than what the UK had before as an EU member although in some cases so badly worded that they may well prove to be a ticking time bomb. She repeatedly boasts about – rather than being ashamed of – her trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, which we know to be of no value to the economy and to undercut British farmers with cheap, low quality produce; furthermore those trade deals will result in an increase in shipping, with all the environmental damage that ensues. Is it a surprise, then, that her lip service to honouring net zero rings hollow? Especially as she is the candidate who has promised to place a moratorium of unspecified duration on green taxes?
As to her other boast, that she as Foreign Secretary led the UK’s response to the invasion of Ukraine, really what that boils down to is that she may have got out of bed early on the morning of February 24th. On the other hand, what Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has been doing is leading on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which threatens what almost everybody outside this government describes as a serious breach of international law. She has doubled down on the Rwanda policy, even though she must know that it is inhumane, ineffective and unaffordable. She is threatening actively to undermine human rights in the UK. And she has form on disregard for human rights.
Why should she act in this way? The clue is in her support. She is the darling of the ERG and the right-wing press despite having voted remain. Perhaps they see her as having the conviction of a convert. More likely they see her as a soft touch, easily manipulated, and in their debt. Her cabinet will undoubtedly be full of people like Steve Baker and Bill Cash, with even the smattering of moderates from the Johnson era consigned to the backbenches. Will liberals start to feel nostalgia for that era? Perish the thought.
And I am not trying to say that those policies are just hers. At every opportunity her rival is following here down the populist rabbit hole, seeing that as the only way to stay in the race.
The last thing Britain wants or needs is a Boris Johnson Mark 2, but there is nothing Britain can do to stop Tory activists handing the keys of Number 10 to another wild blond opportunist whose primary talent is the spinning of fairytales.Andrew Rawnsley
At the moment Truss is profiting from her promises on taxation. It is sad that this should be the kind of issue on which an election is fought. After all, any prime minister coming into office should have the flexibility to change economic policy according to circumstances, and it is a mistake for either candidate to paint themselves into a corner at this point. Furthermore, on this issue at least Sunak is right, she is basing her tax plans on fantasy economics. Even if she could make her figures add up, she avoids talking about the pain which would be caused to public services by her tax policy. On the Today programme recently she was unable to answer the most basic questions, for example the size of debt interest repayments. She is basing her proposals on the advice of others, notably Patrick Minford, the Brexiteer economist whose predictions have already been proven mistaken on an industrial scale.
And then there is her Damascene conversion on Brexit. She is stigmatised by some in her party because she was once a remainer. She tells us that she has “been on a journey” but is unable to explain what that means. She is not just telling us that Brexit is a popular option, which of course it has now ceased to be, but it was the right option for the country. This at a time when the harms of Brexit are becoming more and more manifest, just now to anybody setting off on holiday, but also of course over the past 18 months to farmers, fishers, exporters, scientists, performing artists and anybody working in the NHS. And yet this is something which neither candidate is even mentioning. Liz Truss tells us that “some of the portents of doom didn’t happen”. I think she means predictions of doom, but either way she is saying by implication that some of them did indeed come to pass. A fact which is frankly undeniable to anybody with their eyes open. So I am still waiting to hear what wonderful evidence she changed her mind. And the simple mantra “will of the people” is not good enough, nobody ever voted to leave the single market and customs union.
The sketch writer’s darling
Liz Truss’s arrival on the scene, with her comical ineptitude, will be extremely welcome to sketch writers, mimics and satirists. She is daily giving us sound bites showing her profound ignorance and infelicity with words. She does not look as if she is in her comfort zone. And yet, when you roll back to pre referendum days, the old videos of Truss the Remainer show somebody who was almost verging on articulate. Those days are gone. What does that tell us? Does she believe a word she is saying? Does she even understand it?
From the perspective of those of us who wish to see an end to the Tory nightmare, one major plus is that her premiership is unlikely to last more than two years. On current predictions a Truss led Tory party will not win a majority in the next general election, short of a major transformation on her part.
So should our hypothetical enlightened Tory vote for Sunak? He may be bright, articulate and presentable, and he may be the one, unlike Truss, who left Johnson’s cabinet before the very last minute, but like his competitor he has a lot of questions to answer about his empathy, his motives and about the company he keeps. It is a sad reflection on our times and his party that he is somehow regarded as the “left wing candidate” of the two. His biggest recommendation is that he is not Liz Truss. Is that really enough? You tell me.
The author is Chair of Oxford For Europe, and this article is based on a blog on the OfE. The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe.
Some of the points made here were put on Radio 4’s Any Answers