On with the Mad Hatter’s tea party, as they all move up a place and Suella Braverman falls out. This leadership race is a strangely unreal world of phantasms. Its candidates inhabit a twilight zone where true belief is all that matters. If Penny Mordaunt seems to steal the scene, her advantage over the rest is that she is the least well known, leaving punters free to invest in her whatever they may hope for.
Here is a “conservative” party that just crashed the country, threatened democratic norms, broke rules and defied the law now behaving as if nothing has happened. None of the leadership candidates dares to mention the unmentionable – the disgrace of a prime minister they selected, knowing all there was to know about his character. Remember how he was once mobbed by MPs and party members grabbing selfies wherever he went? Remember how they cleaved to him, justifying his lies, dishonesty, crony contracts and corrupt favouritism? They’re all in it together, running from the crime scene as if this shame they brought upon their party and parliament never happened.
These candidates inhabit another planet to ordinary voters. Their articles of faith are far removed from the common ground where general elections are fought and won. Proving they are the right stuff to their own clan is all that matters. Yesterday Newsnight joined a focus group in Rother Valley, South Yorkshire, that showed voters overwhelmingly anxious about prices, bills and the crippling cost of living. Yes, it’s the economy, stupid – but on display here we have John Stuart Mill’s “stupid party”.
The empty theology of who stood where in the Brexit referendum six long and painful years ago is still the golden key to party votes, so candidates commit to breaking the EU treaty and tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol regardless of consequences. “Penny will always fight for Brexit and always has,” swear Mordaunt’s team. Make Brexit Worse is their shared mantra. That leaves Keir Starmer and David Lammy to talk up “Make Brexit work”, as they did on their recent visit to Berlin, where they met Chancellor Olaf Scholz and discussed how a Labour government could cooperate with the EU – and how social democrats can win.
Back in Toryland, bring on the pious abstract nouns. “Aspiration nation”, Liz Truss quips, as if her party could wish away this most severe economic crisis. Tom Tugendhat has promised extra money to those on benefits, but this won’t cover the rise in bills. No candidate has addressed the £20 that Rishi Sunak snatched back from universal credit, which tipped many people into food bank penury. Vague promises of “growth” lack any specific productivity plans.
Tax cuts are no answer. The Institute for Public Policy Research found that if income tax was reduced to 19% – at a total cost of £5bn to the exchequer – half would go to those on high incomes, while only 2.6% would go to the poorest. No wonder the candidates are vague on economic detail, preferring the distractions of a “war on woke” or ardent support for the collapsing Rwanda refugee plan. In the midst of a blistering heatwave they back off net-zero pledges or any serious climate conversation. Everything urgent and difficult is ignored for the airy certainties of a comforting creed.
Levelling up? Not a murmur of how to redistribute while cutting taxes. As each reaffirms their faith in the old-time religion of small state and low taxes (with more on defence), none tell us which public services they would cut. The NHS is falling apart so fast that ambulance services are in critical condition. Ambulances are queueing outside hospitals where beds are blocked in the absence of any social care plan. NHS waiting lists have hit new highs. But expect no answer from these candidates, who all voted for budget after budget that decimated the health service.
Lacking any new ideas, they instead reprise the old hymns: Mordaunt actually said the old songs were best. Vying for the “heir to Thatcher” title may warm the cockles of old Tory hearts, but that name still chills many souls in those “red wall” seats the Tories need to secure. Liz Truss mimics those famous Thatcher poses, while Sunak claims the Thatcher mantle of fiscal rectitude. Both forget that Boris Johnson briefly charmed those former Labour voters only when he disguised himself as a break from Thatcherism, who stood for high spending, levelling up and an end to austerity.
“Left behind” began with Thatcher’s heartless closure of mines and industries without replacing lost jobs or repairing forsaken communities. Like Donald Rumsfeld, she didn’t do nation-building. Nor do any of these candidates look like nation-builders, nor even rebuilders of their own party’s crashed reputation.
Jittery fears of an imminent election echo around Toryland. Whoever wins the leadership would be mad not to call an election and seize a mini-bounce from being anyone but Boris. Things can only get worse if they wait. As one cabinet minister warns the Financial Times, “We’re heading for a shit storm. We’d better choose someone who knows what they’re doing.”
Do any of them? Sunak will go on obeying the Treasury orthodoxy that made us this low-growth, high-inflation country. None of these finalists have been politically stress-tested. Only in the hellfire of a general election will they discover who has the mettle. Remember they once thought Theresa May reliably “strong and stable”, only for her to lose her majority in the calamitous 2017 election, when they found out too late she was a dud.
July 14, 2022 at 11:36PM Polly Toynbee