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MARDEN, ENGLAND – JULY 23: Liz Truss gestures as she speaks to people while campaigning for the Conservative Party Leadership on July 23, 2022 in Marden, England. Current Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, made it to the final two candidates for the Conservative Party Leadership contest along with former Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Truss has so far promised to cut taxes and dump all EU laws inherited from Brexit. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
Fear and loathing on the Tory trail

Fear and loathing on the Tory trail

MARDEN, ENGLAND – JULY 23: Liz Truss gestures as she speaks to people while campaigning for the Conservative Party Leadership on July 23, 2022 in Marden, England. Current Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, made it to the final two candidates for the Conservative Party Leadership contest along with former Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Truss has so far promised to cut taxes and dump all EU laws inherited from Brexit. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

The leadership run-off between Sunak and Truss is proving to be petty, dismal and squalid. Instead of growing in stature, the final two candidates are shrinking before our eyes

“Jesus! This gibberish could run on forever and even now I can see myself falling into the old trap that plagues every writer who gets sucked into this rotten business. You find yourself getting fascinated by the drifts and strange quirks of the game… After several weeks of this you no longer give a flying fuck who actually wins; the only thing that matters is the point-spread.”

So wrote the late Hunter S. Thompson in his classic account of the 1972 US presidential race, Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. Half a century on, I can’t help thinking that the great Gonzo journalist, the sage of Woody Creek, Colorado, would make short work of the increasingly preposterous run-off for the Conservative leadership between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.

For a start, how can one take seriously a contest between a serving foreign secretary who claims to be an “insurgent”, and a man who, until 20 days ago, was Chancellor of the Exchequer, but postures now as the “underdog”? Truss has been in ministerial office continuously for ten years, eight of them in Cabinet: so she is essentially declaring an insurrection against herself. 

In Grantham on Saturday, Sunak presented himself as the maverick challenger, fighting against the Establishment, the Man, the status quo. “The forces that be want this to be a coronation for the other candidate,” he claimed.

“Forces that be”? What is this nonsense? Here is a politician one step away from holding the highest office in the land; who went to Winchester, Oxford, and Stanford business school; who worked for Goldman Sachs before moving into hedge funds and private investment; who married a billionaire’s daughter, herself estimated to be richer than the Queen; who secured a safe parliamentary seat in his first general election; and was appointed chancellor at the age of 39. 

If this is life up against the “forces that be”, I’d love to see what an easy ride looks like. “Be in no doubt, I am the underdog,” said Sunak two days ago. With a background like his, in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, I’m not sure that’s a word I’d be bandying about right now – if ever.

And this, as Thompson would quickly have spotted, is proving to be a squalid contest, as well as a silly one. Sunak, it is true, manages to portray himself as squeaky clean (in spite of the fine he received in April for breaking Covid rules and the controversies over his family’s tax affairs), posting regular social media clips in which he leans into camera with the jolly intensity of a Blue Peter presenter or a young reporter for BBC Points West. 

Hunter S. Thompson and George McGovern during the 1972 presidential Campaign

But his leadership campaign is one of the most ruthless that I have encountered, including in its ranks such masters of the dark political arts as the Tory fixer-in-chief, Dougie Smith (for more on whom, check out this Slow Newscast) and the ex chief whip Sir Gavin Williamson. Next time you hear Sunak claim that he doesn’t want to get personal about his opponent, rest assured that someone else is doing it for him.  

Truss, meanwhile, gives as good as she gets. Again, she insists in public that it’s all about the issues and not about smearing her rival. On the other hand, today’s Times reports “allies of Truss” sneering about Sunak’s chances in tonight’s BBC debate in the following terms: “He’s been trying to fatten the pig on market day by throwing red meat out but people don’t believe him because it’s not sincere… He should be true to himself — a totally boring failed economist.”

Occasionally, it looks as though the last two candidates standing are straying into areas of substance and policy. But this invariably proves to be a false alarm. Their sole purpose, as they seek the votes of 160,000 or so Tory members, is to convey an impression, to manifest a certain character type, to show, above all, that they are tough.

Yesterday’s challenge was to embrace and trump Priti Patel’s (already faltering) Rwanda deportation scheme. No matter, it would seem, that the first flight of refugees was abandoned last month after an 11th-hour ruling by European Court of Human Rights; or that the Rwandan government says that it can presently accommodate only 200 migrants; or that the £120 million paid up front is apparently non-refundable. This is the stuff of boring technicality.

What Sunak and Truss want to impress upon Tory members is that they would go even further. In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, the former chancellor wrote that he funded the Rwanda scheme because “it is the right one” – and that he has a ten-point plan to pump even more populist testosterone into border control. Not to be outdone, the foreign secretary told the Mail on Sunday that the Rwanda policy was “the right thing to do”; but that it needed to be seen through “to full implementation” and expanded into other countries. 

Every nation, of course, has the right and the duty to manage its borders sensibly and efficiently; and, for the record, the UK admits comparatively few asylum seekers, ranking only 15th among European nations when accounting for population size. But there is something darker at work here. 

Is it not dismal that two such senior politicians, who have held the highest offices of state, are competing to become prime minister of a great and supposedly compassionate nation by seeing which of them can be nastier towards the most desperate and wretched people on the surface of the planet? Is that – in their opinion, at least – what it now means to be British?

As they bid against each other on migration, so they have been swinging the hammer overnight like drunkards showing off at a fairground to prove which would take a harder line against China. Again, there is a legitimate – and necessary – debate to be had about the geostrategic role envisaged by Beijing in the coming decades, and the correct response to its morphing form by the UK.

But the answers will not be found in the chest-beating rhetoric suddenly adopted by Sunak. “China is the biggest long-term threat to Britain and the world’s economic and national security,” he said last night. “Enough is enough.” To which the Truss camp replied, predictably enough. “I have one simple question to Mr Sunak,” asked Sir Iain Duncan Smith. “Where have you been over the last two years?” 

These are empty-carb exchanges: they are free of content or the nutrients of fresh thinking. In which context, the most pathetic feature of the run-off so far has been its karaoke Thatcherism. Officially, Truss dismisses comparisons between herself and the Iron Lady. “I am my own person,” she told the BBC’s Today programme on Thursday. “​​No one seems to be comparing Rishi Sunak to Ted Heath,” she complained to the Mail on Sunday, “it’s always about me and Mrs Thatcher.” Which is true: but you do not need to be a semiotician to see that, especially since her promotion to the Foreign Office in September, she has channelled the image and countenance of the UK’s first woman prime minister relentlessly – and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Sunak, for his part, is quite open, not to say desperate, in his claim to be Thatcher’s heir. In Wednesday’s Telegraph, he wrote: “My values are Thatcherite… I am a Thatcherite, I am running as a Thatcherite and I will govern as a Thatcherite… I would deliver a set of reforms as radical as the ones Margaret Thatcher drove through in the 1980s…[I am] the best candidate to deliver a 21st century set of Thatcherite reforms”.

Is it just me, or do you get the feeling that he wants to be identified as a Thatcherite?

All this frantic ideological ancestor worship is, of course, the consequence of Sunak’s fear that his hostility to unfunded tax cuts has made him vulnerable (absurdly) to the charge of socialism. In contrast, it is true, Truss is much more relaxed about borrowing to pay for reducing taxation. 

For what it is worth, I think Sunak’s fiscal conservatism is closer to Thatcher’s core beliefs, and that she would have shared his caution about the possible inflationary consequences of sudden tax cuts in the present economic context. But – again – one has to take a step back and ask whether any of this is really about policy, or something else entirely.

What does it say about a governing party that has been in office for 12 years that the candidates for its leadership are being measured in relation to a prime minister who left office more than three decades ago? It makes no more sense for Sunak and Truss to be judged by their respective fidelity to Thatcher’s record than it would for Thatcher herself to have campaigned for the Conservative leadership in 1975 by promising to restore the values of the Churchill-Attlee war ministry; or for Churchill to have entered Number 10 in 1940 pledging to revive the policies of Lord Salisbury.

It is a measure of how bare of ideas the Conservative cupboard truly is in 2022 that its supposedly biggest beasts are reduced to the political equivalent of an Elvis impersonation contest; a pair of pier-end tribute acts, playing old numbers in the hope that collective nostalgia and the ideological muscle reflex of the Tory tribe will propel them into Number 10.

The profound irony of which is that Thatcherism was never meant to calcify into a creed or immutable doctrinal verities. In 1975, after the ten-year reign of Heath, Thatcher really was an underdog and an insurgent. She and her intellectual acolytes formed a cohort of iconoclasts, spread through Parliament and busy think-tanks, determined to disrupt and overturn the old Tory consensus. 

In this sense, they were, in their own way, the first modernisers. “My aim was to convert the Tory Party,” said her closest intellectual ally, Sir Keith Joseph – and so they did. The key to the whole enterprise was to identify the challenges of the day, not the sentimental attachments of the past, and to address them vigorously.

In 1979, when Thatcher became PM her principal tasks were to rejuvenate the economy; tame the unions; and put Britain’s shoulder to the wheel in the global struggle against Soviet communism. In 2022, a quite different political landscape will face the new occupant of Number 10: one in which globalisation presents pathologies as well as opportunities; in which longevity is transforming the scale and nature of health and social care; in which technology is pulverising every human assumption and mutating at a rate with which government is struggling badly to keep up; in which the climate emergency has yet to be truly acknowledged as the existential species threat that it is; in which the two poles of the Cold War have been replaced by an infinitely more complex geopolitical map, in which asymmetric and cyber warfare require as much prime ministerial attention as the shifting tectonic relations between the world’s superpowers; and in which populism and social media have displaced statesmanship and deliberation.

Above all, it should be obvious to any politician thinking beyond the next tweet that the pandemic was not exactly a “Thatcherite” moment. As Sunak knows only too well, it required massive government intervention, emergency regulation of everything and a sudden (and incomplete) reassessment of the nature of the state. 

When test and trace was farmed out to the private sector it was an unmitigated disaster. When vaccine delivery was entrusted to the NHS and primary care networks it was a triumph. Sunak and Truss now distance themselves from the Covid lockdowns. But those measures were fantastically popular with the public. Whichever of them becomes prime minister on 5 September will serve an electorate that is less concerned about Brexit opportunities being “unleashed” than it is about basic securities; about the NHS backlog and health inequalities; about keeping the lights on and food on the table – in some cases, indeed, about food banks running out of food; about their ability to get to work; about the near-collapse of basic public services. Most people would settle for a liveable life and a fair shake before all the “unleashing” begins.

The best and only lesson that Sunak and Truss can learn from Thatcher is not to be trapped by history but to confront the present and the future with rigorous candour. Instead, they give every impression of treating the Tory Party as a heritage organisation in which victory belongs to the candidate who pays most zealous homage to its past. This is not leadership, but curation.

Boris Johnson’s finest bequest to his successor is a working Commons majority of 71. This offers the new prime minister at least the potential to think deeply, take bold and fresh action and – if he or she has the courage – to plot an exit route out of the current paralysis of our battered democracy.

Truth to tell, though, there is absolutely no sign to date that Sunak or Truss has the mettle to think or act in this way. Precisely when they should be growing in stature and revealing themselves capable of national as well as party leadership they are engaged in ever pettier squabbles and playground politics. Yes, there are still television debates and countrywide hustings to come; one or both of them may step up to the plate. But the auguries are not good.

Thompson wrote that Nixon had once been successful “for the same reason he was finally brought low. He kept pushing, pushing, pushing – and inevitably he pushed too far”. The same is true of Johnson, whose scandals and sleaze made this contest necessary; this whole sorry spectacle, do not forget, is the bawling lovechild of Partygate and the PM’s response to Chris Pincher’s alleged groping.

Where does it all lead? Again, across the years, Thompson offers a warning. “The slow-rising central horror of ‘Watergate’,” he wrote, “is… that we might somehow fail to learn something from it.” Five decades later, on the other side of an ocean, in a very different time, we face precisely the same peril.

Photographs by Everett/Shutterstock and Getty Images