This much I know to be true:
- The prime minister of this country has been driven from office by a disastrous saga of lies, law-breaking, allegations of sexual harassment in his government and a culture of sleazy presumption at its very heart.
- The cost of living crisis is already causing enormous hardship, as inflation surges towards 11 per cent.
- Ambulance crews are taking an average of 51 minutes to reach heart attack victims: a grim statistic symbolic of broad and deep dysfunction in our public services.
- It’s bloody hot.
Meanwhile, in other news:
5. The Conservative Party is holding a leadership contest.
Not counting Michael Howard’s victory by acclamation in 2003, this is the seventh such race I have covered since 1995; and, against stiff competition, considerably the nastiest. By their very nature, all such contests are unpleasant: superficially amicable (in theory, the party is obliged to unite once it has selected a victor) but invariably laced with a measure of poison, innuendo and outright personal defamation behind the scenes.
But the race to succeed Boris Johnson is something else. As was all too apparent from last night’s ITV debate, the bad blood between the five contenders – or least some of them – is not a by-product of their principled differences but the main engine of the competition. Though they all claimed to deplore “toxic politics”, they also seemed pretty content to carry on practising it.
To observe the stand-off between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, in particular, was to observe the public eruption of personal contempt between two very senior politicians, who, until the former’s resignation on 5 July, sat at the same cabinet table as, respectively, chancellor and foreign secretary.
He mocked her past as a former Remainer and Lib Dem. She scoffed at his education at a grand public school. He accused her of peddling “socialism” (a new one, it must be said, in the Little Book of Truss Disses). She implied that he was all surface and no content, by declaring that she was not the “slickest performer on this stage” but made up for it with her record of “delivery”.
All of which would have been standard cut-and-thrust, had the debate been otherwise rich in content and visionary plans for the post-Johnson Conservative government. But it absolutely, conspicuously was not: more like a special political edition of The Weakest Link, than a Platonic symposium.
There was the usual argument about unfunded tax cuts that has become the signature feature of this race. Some rows about who said what about the trans issue; and who, in Cabinet, had privately opposed the Health and Social Care Levy (national insurance increases, which came into force in April, that should provide an extra £12 billion a year for these services).
Tom Tugendhat, an exemplary chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select committee, untainted by association with the Johnson regime, has been the palate cleanser of the contest and raised his public profile dramatically. He would be a fine foreign secretary in the new government.
Kemi Badenoch, meanwhile, has been the undoubted break-out star of the battle, full of punk political energy and stringent straight talk. And the Conservative movement has fallen for her in a fashion that recalls the insurgent victory of Margaret Thatcher in the leadership contest of 1975. According to Conservative Home’s latest survey, she would trounce every other contender if she were to reach the final round of two, decided by a ballot of the party’s members.
This is not theoretically impossible. Were she to pick up all of the 27 votes cast for Suella Braverman in the second round – unlikely, given that Braverman, having been eliminated, has backed Truss – and persuade a sizeable proportion of the foreign secretary’s 64 supporters that she was the stronger “Stop Rishi” candidate, Badenoch could just cross the 120 threshold required to earn her a place in the final two. But, assuming she does not pull that off, whoever succeeds Johnson will be more or less obliged to give her a big department to turn upside down and inside out.
Still as wooden as one of Geppetto’s puppets awaiting the wand of the Blue Fairy to turn her into a real Thatcher, Truss retains the support of those who believe that Johnson was betrayed by a conspiracy of Remainers, Blairites, the civil service, judges, the BBC, folk singers, slam poets, Sagittarians and yoga instructors.
After the past eight months, it is odd that any ambitious politician should allow themselves to be labelled the “continuity Boris” candidate; a bit like being labelled the “continuity Covid” candidate, you might suppose. But Truss’s camp is still confident that the support of the Daily Mail and of the European Research Group of Brexiteer MPs will carry her into the last round – and put her within striking distance of Number 10. A thought which should just be left on the table for general consideration; much like a lump of enriched, weapons-grade plutonium.
To my mind, the two most interesting candidates by far in this contest have been Sunak and Mordaunt, though for very different reasons. In my Slow Newscast in May on the former chancellor’s horrendous 20 days in March and April – from his disappointing Spring Statement via the controversy over his family’s tax affairs to his fine for attending Johnson’s birthday party during lockdown – I asked whether, in boxing parlance, he had a glass jaw. Could he take a punch and get back up?
So credit where it is due. As callow and tone-deaf as Sunak’s handling of the row surrounding his wife’s non-dom status undoubtedly was, he was cleared on 27 April of all impropriety by Lord Geidt, at that point still the PM’s independent advisor on ministers’s interests (Geidt resigned on 15 June, and has yet to be replaced).
And, more to the point, Sunak did not, as seemed possible at one point, allow the public pummelling he received for three weeks to drive him from frontline politics. He did get up from the canvas, and – in quitting 13 days ago – finally displayed the ruthless will to power that his opponents (and some of his supporters) thought that he lacked.
His campaign has been well-judged, too, if singularly uninspiring. At every turn, he has stuck with the percentages, minimising contact with the media, playing the competence card rather than presenting himself as a transformative prime minister-in-waiting.
The polling in this contest has sent mixed signals to the point of cacophony. But my strong sense over the weekend was that many Tory MPs were impressed by the survey by JL Partners in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph of 4,400 people who had voted Conservative in 2019 – suggesting that Sunak has the strongest chance of holding together the electoral coalition that delivered the party an 80-seat majority two and half years ago.
The gravitational pull that the former chancellor exerts upon Tories and the Tory-supporting section of the London elite is obvious. He incarnates the pre-2016 world in which credentialism, facility with data and the confident smile of technocracy were still enough to get to the top and stay there.
That, as the rise of populism has shown, is simply no longer the case. And you can see that Sunak, for all his claims to modernity, is baffled by many aspects of contemporary politics. It was fascinating to watch his face in last night’s debate when he was not speaking; to observe how the perma-smile hardened into a frown when he was being taken to task by the others.
We are used to the amiable Sunak, the beaming man from the Treasury. But you could see that – at heart – he regards the leadership as his by right, the logical conclusion to a life story of radical social mobility in which he has never really failed and has always, in every situation, been the Head Boy to whom the junior prefects deferred. You could see, too, that he regards any serious challenge to his position as an impertinence; as was clear when he lashed out absurdly at Mordaunt, accusing her of being worse than Jeremy Corbyn.
It is at such moments that one wonders whether Sunak might struggle with the role of prime minister, as he did not at the Treasury; whether he possesses the nimbleness and agility to be 100 different things a day; whether, in fact, he is less than the sum of his parts.
Remember, too, that, for all his shininess and apparent novelty, he would arrive in Number 10 with a fair amount of baggage. He was not the driving force behind the partygate scandal, but he broke the law nonetheless and was issued with a fixed penalty notice. His family’s staggering wealth has already led him to the precipice of political disaster, and the scrutiny to which it was subjected in the spring will seem tame compared to what lies ahead if he becomes PM. (For instance, has his father-in-law’s corporation Infosys closed down its operation in Russia, as promised, or not? The Moscow office is still listed on the website of the global software giant.)
As for Mordaunt: her campaign, though far from perfect, has been much stronger than some of her detractors claim. She should certainly have had a better answer to the inevitable questions about her claim in 2016 that the UK could not stop Turkey from joining the European Union. On the other hand, the allegation that she is inexperienced is either sexist, or ignorant, or both.
Since her appointment as a local government minister on 15 July 2014, she has been continuously in office for more than eight years – except for a hiatus of 205 days after Johnson sacked her as defence secretary in 2019 for supporting Jeremy Hunt in the last leadership election (she returned as Paymaster General in February 2020). Her knowledge of international development, global security, national resilience (which she oversaw at the Cabinet Office) and trade is deep. This may not suit the lazy narrative that Mordaunt is an empty vessel. But it is true nonetheless.
As for the trans issue: the twists and turns of this story require a column unto themselves. But let me offer my own clarification, based on many conversations with Mordaunt and her advisers when she was minister for women and equalities between April 2018 and July 2019.
She was emphatically not in favour of self-ID. She did, it is true, say that “transwomen are women and transmen are men”, but always meant this in the legal rather than the quasi-mystical sense deployed by some trans activists. More to the point: she was unequivocally committed to the preservation of single-sex spaces, and is the only minister to whom I have spoken that has thought seriously about the practical consequences of this commitment: the additional infrastructure, for example, that might be necessary to accommodate trans people in a dignified fashion that does not impinge unpon the rights of women.
As she has repeatedly said in this contest, she was not in post long enough to deliver a detailed policy on the future of gender recognition. But (as gender-critical feminists who spoke to her at the time also attest) the notion that she was or is a heedless follower of “wokery” is plain wrong.
Though time is not on her side, she could yet go further in addressing the crisis of trust – a crisis that is, after all, the reason why this leadership contest is happening at all. Since the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, the body politic has been sliding towards reputational disaster; and that disaster finally came to pass in the final months of Johnson’s premiership.
Embracing lies, allegations of sexual misconduct, hypocrisy, indifference to the law and a private belief that those who rule are separate and different from those they govern, it has amounted to an ethical crash every bit as damaging to the fabric of our democracy as the financial version of 2008-09.
Mordaunt has plenty to say on this theme, not least in her book Greater: Britain After the Storm, co-authored by the leadership and media trainer, Chris Lewis (who would not, in spite of media allegations to the contrary, be part of her government were she to win the contest). Here are a selection of her thoughts on the matter:
- “You can’t do trusted; you can only be trusted.”
- “Without rules, there can be no fairness. Especially for the people who write them.”
- “…trust is shot because politics has been inconsistent with the character of the people. The transcendent British quality – the cornerstone of the brand, if you like – is trust…”
- “In any other organisation, these events would lead to sackings. The expense claims, the sexual harassments and the bribery would simply not be tolerated outside, and individuals would almost certainly be dismissed for gross professional misconduct… The House does not work to the same standards as the outside world. It is unrepresentative of the organisations and businesses it is there to serve.”
- “To ask people to keep faith with capitalism, democracy and leadership, we need to recognise that the glue that holds them together is trust.”
This seems to me the premise from which all the leadership campaigns should be proceeding. There is no point banging on about tax cuts and fiscal headroom if nobody believes a word you say and the political system that you represent is held in contempt. Whether or not she becomes leader, her party could, in this respect, do with a healthy dose of “Mordaun-isation”.
At any rate: the ferocious response to her candidacy reflects, in large part, the extent to which she makes the other contenders and their media champions feel uncomfortable. It is for Conservative MPs to decide what to make of that malaise, and whether they want a safety-first successor to Johnson or a leader who will take the party down a different path.
Does it really need to be spelt out that, after 12 years in office, they badly need to choose the latter, harder option? More yet, they need to hug the cactus of reality: acknowledging that the political ideology of the small state, however consoling it may still be to them, is simply not suited to the needs of the age.
Climate change does not care whether you regard it as a priority; it is self-evidently the greatest peril facing the human race and one that can only be meaningfully addressed by government. Ditto social care and the other challenges of longevity. Ditto the question of how to deal effectively, rather than theatrically with ever-greater migration.
Ditto the grievous inequalities that are the collateral damage of globalisation and – to date – the most powerful engine of populist nativism. Ditto the dilemma of how best to regulate and prepare future generations for the greatest technological revolution in human history.
So little of this has been mentioned in the tiny room of squabbling Tory leadership contenders. One wonders what sort of world they imagine is out there. Have they simply been in government too long? Or are they incapable of thinking beyond the old, comforting verities of Thatcherism? Either way, it has been, as Mordaunt admitted, an “unedifying” spectacle. This ought to be a moment for renewal and bold ideas. Instead, like Nero, they fiddle while Britain burns.