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The starter’s pistol has been fired on the next Tory leadership contest
Slow Views

The starter’s pistol has been fired on the next Tory leadership contest

Monday 15 November 2021

Boris Johnson is not yet finished, but the race to succeed him is now underway


Boris Johnson is incredibly bad at being prime minister. There is pretty much no one in Westminster that disagrees with this proposition, at least in private. Not civil servants. Not journalists. Not Tory MPs. Not even the majority of ministers.

Prime ministers usually have some, if not all of the skills required for this most singular job. Margaret Thatcher was decisive though divisive. Gordon Brown had a great eye for detail, even if it sometimes bogged him down. David Cameron at least acted the part and could make a decent speech when it mattered. We forget, too, how popular Theresa May’s “steady as she goes” persona was – at least in her first months in Number 10.

Johnson has no relevant abilities at all. He is chronically indecisive, changing his mind repeatedly, depending on whom he has last spoken to; he is entirely uninterested in key facts, let alone detail; has the attention span of a toddler on their third bag of Haribo; and he has no governing philosophy or core principles. 

Some optimists thought that he might at least appoint a strong team around him to manage day-to-day business. Instead, he has picked a group of people who have ended up at war around him as he wanders through the chaos – chaos which, according to Dominic Cummings, he rather enjoys.

Given how few people dissent from this general view it may seem odd that, until last week, he was seen as pretty much invulnerable. There are two reasons for this.

First, there is his residual popularity with sections of the public. This is often overstated: he is not well liked, and for most of his time as PM his net approval rating has languished below zero. But he is more popular than most politicians, especially within a series of important electoral demographics. 

His large majority (80 seats) may have been won against the worst Labour leader since the war. But it remains a remarkable achievement: in the last 50 years, only Thatcher and Tony Blair have secured larger victories.

The second, related, factor is Brexit. He is quite possibly the only leader who could have held the Tories together in 2019 and secured a deal around which they finally coalesced. 

This is not because he has great negotiating skills or a unique talent for party management, but because of two apparently contradictory factors: first, he was strongly associated with the Leave vote and the victorious referendum campaign of 2016; and yet, as we know from his notorious vacillation five years ago before finally backing Brexit, he doesn’t actually have any deeply held beliefs. No one else would have so brazenly told everyone what they wanted to hear, without worrying about what it meant for the future.

Keeping the Tory party in one piece is something that has bought him a lengthy period of loyalty, however grudging. This period is now drawing to a close. Within and beyond the borders of the Tory tribe, his popularity and the resilience of his Brexit deal are increasingly being questioned. His approval rates have been steadily falling (after a boost earlier this year, probably attributable to the initial triumph of the vaccine roll-out).

In the last week or so, those ratings have nose-dived, thanks to the PM’s astonishingly inept handling of the Owen Paterson case. It is quite something to be so morally bankrupt as to pierce the armoured cynicism of our political journalists. But this prime minister pulled it off – the consequence being a relentless barrage of stories about Tory impropriety.

His own MPs are incandescent, and for the first time grumbling to the media in large numbers. Meanwhile, the Brexit process is under fresh pressure due to the fundamental contradictions Johnson blithely ignored in the original deal. The trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that he pretended wouldn’t exist have led to yet another stalemate with the EU.

Now Lord Frost, chief negotiator of Taskforce Europe, is threatening to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol – which sounds arcane, but would reopen the whole deal. The PM is now stuck in a position where he either has to back down to the EU and keep an effective border in the North Sea in place, or renege upon the fundamental promise of the 2019 election: that Brexit would get (and stay) done.

All this means that for the first time the question of his leadership and its future is being seriously discussed. There is no chance of a challenge in the short to medium term; but the countdown has begun.

Remember: the Tories are not remotely sentimental. They love their leaders as long as they are useful and then drop them like a hot brick when they are not. Unlike Thatcher, or even Cameron, Johnson has no ideological allies – because he has no ideas, and because, to an extent concealed by his bonhomous persona, he is an unusually solitary politician.

In 2019, there was no alternative leader that could seriously command the support of the Brexiteers and unite the party. Now, there are two: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.

If there were a leadership contest tomorrow, the chancellor and the foreign secretary would be the frontrunners – and they know it. Granted, such a race is unlikely in the near future. But there has undoubtedly been a shift and the audible sound of a starter’s pistol: so it’s worth considering how this race for the top job might shape up.

Since replacing Sajid Javid as chancellor, Sunak has been positioning himself with a series of slickly produced, if mildly nauseating, promotional videos. He has quite literally developed his own brand, often using a variant of his signature in place of the Tory party logo. 

Last week he publicly criticised Number 10’s handling of the Paterson case, saying “we need to do better” – a clear dividing line with the PM, who has pointedly refused to apologise.

It is easy to see Sunak’s superficial appeal. His clear speaking, modern manner and dapper presentation contrast strongly with Johnson’s verbal effusions and “Worzel Gummidge at a society wedding” look. Sunak would also be the first person of colour to become prime minister – and there are few things Tories enjoy more than reminding Labour how their theoretical commitment to diversity and identity politics contrasts with the decisions they actually take in leadership contests.

But Sunak also has some serious weaknesses. He is another public school boy, enormously rich, owning multiple palatial properties, and the son-in-law of a billionaire. He would be, by a long distance, the wealthiest occupant of Number 10 since the Victorian era.

While that doesn’t rule him out – after all, Johnson (Eton and Oxford) is hardly the product of a council estate – it exposes a social flank that Tory MPs, especially those recently elected in red wall seats, are increasingly nervous about.

More importantly, Sunak has shown little in the way of political imagination. The boldness of the furlough scheme – an undeniable success, introduced in his first few weeks as chancellor – promised much. But there has been nothing to compare with it since. 

Instead he has bought into a stultifying Treasury orthodoxy where “sound money” and fiscal conservatism take precedence over policies to drive growth. In this respect, his Budget on 27 October was a colossal wasted opportunity. 

By re-introducing unnecessary fiscal rules, he left himself increasing taxes more sharply than any chancellor in 30 years – but doing little to improve the UK’s productivity or public services.

Many of his ministerial colleagues have discovered that he shows a disturbing tendency to focus on the micro rather than macro. The spending review was managed with a level of control freakery not seen since the days of Gordon Brown. 

One example is the new adult numeracy scheme, Multiply; this was Sunak’s idea, which he then imposed on the Department for Education, which has no idea what it is supposed to be or how it should be implemented.

So much for Sunak. What of the alternative? Liz Truss was promoted to foreign secretary because of her surging popularity with Tory members. While it’s easy to mock the limited value of the global deals she sealed as international trade secretary, they are seen by true believers as one of the tangible rewards of Brexit to date – and something that many Remainers argued was impossible.

She has also made no secret of her ambitions for the top job, and is a very different prospect to Sunak. For a start, she isn’t and doesn’t try to be slick or corporate-branded. Her infamous 2014 Tory party conference speech, with its bizarrely intense, and weirdly paced, lines about cheese imports and pork markets, epitomised her undoubted struggle to strike the right tone. 

The other contrast with the chancellor, though, is more important: she is very ideological. Unlike Sunak, she has fully embraced the culture war that is being driven from within Number 10 by policy unit director Munira Mirza and her husband, the Tory fixer-in-chief, Dougie Smith.

In her capacity as equalities minister she gave a speech last year lambasting the left’s “post-modernist philosophy”; banning the civil service from engaging in “unconscious bias” training and attacking affirmative action schemes. More recently, she demanded that all departments withdraw from the Stonewall diversity scheme, because of the campaign group’s position on transgender rights. It’s almost impossible to imagine Sunak choosing to take a position on such a vexed issue. I am told that Truss also played a major role in the appointment of controversial headteacher, and GB News favourite, Katharine Birbalsingh as social mobility commissioner.

Truss is also a strident free marketer whereas Sunak is more of a Cameron-Osborne era fiscal conservative. She was one of a handful of cabinet ministers who spoke out against the £12 billion increase in National Insurance contributions and has written extensively on her belief in deregulation as a key driver of growth.

In her first two months as foreign secretary she has already managed a series of splashes in friendly newspapers by being more aggressively critical than her predecessors (or indeed the PM) of authoritarian states like China and Russia.

All this Thatcheresque behaviour has made Truss a darling of the more ideologically committed Tory members, and she also has a strong appeal to the 2019 intake of MPs who value a forthright, aggressive approach to politics. Longer-serving members tend to find her somewhat more alarming and, frankly, gauche – and mostly prefer Sunak’s patrician conservatism and easy charm. His potential appeal is to home county voters who want to protect their assets but would rather avoid difficult culture war arguments with the kids, and don’t see a problem with England players taking the knee.

Since the fall of Thatcher in 1990, every Tory leadership contest has been dominated by Europe. That battle has now been comprehensively won by the sceptics. No serious future candidate will profess anything other than full-throated support for the Brexit path already taken.

The new divide – whether it’s Sunak vs Truss or some other combination of contestants in years to come – is cultural, between the wealthy blue wall Tories who are content with Cameroonian social liberalism as long as there’s not too much redistribution, and red wall Tories who talk about the “metropolitan liberal elite” without an ironic eyebrow raise.

That’s the battleground. It’s also an underappreciated challenge to the future of the Tory Party. Whether the present uneasy alliance between these groups can survive the transition to a new Conservative leader will do much to determine the shape of British politics in the coming decades.

Photograph by Leon Neal/Getty Images

Sam Freedman is a former senior adviser to the Department for Education and executive director at Teach First