As has been said several times since the Tory leadership race was pared down to a pair yesterday, if Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are the best the Conservative Party can come up with to replace Boris Johnson, maybe they’d have been better off leaving Boris in the job. Well, blame the Tory MPs if you want to blame anybody. If online polls are any kind of guide, the actual membership out in the Shires seemed to favour the eliminated outsiders Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt – both of whom would have provided the break with the recent past that the two remaining contenders cannot by virtue of being tainted by their Boris associations, regardless of how Sunak has been recast overnight by the Right of the Party as the Conservative antichrist. Now those same Tory Party members who largely preferred the other candidates have to decide between the lacklustre couple their elected representatives selected, and what a choice for 0.3% of the electorate to be presented with.
Although not all of them stood up to applaud Boris’s PMQs finale in typically sycophantic fashion, those Tory MPs that clearly didn’t want the PM to go must be wondering if the erratic old frying pan was preferable to the unfamiliar fire they now find themselves in. Usually, a Prime Minister is forced from office when there’s an outstanding successor waiting in the wings; this time round, there was nobody. Rishi may have been in the lead from day one (or long before considering how instant his campaign was), but it still feels as though most are making do with the ex-Chancellor as a potential PM because the dearth of talent on the Tory frontbench means there’s no one else to get excited about; maybe the Party should have considered this before ousting the man who won it one of the biggest majorities in its history less than three years ago.
Theresa May was notable in keeping her hands to herself during the applause that accompanied Boris’s theatrical exit from the Commons yesterday; in fact, there’s almost a fascinatingly Heath/Thatcher vibe to their increasingly frosty relationship now, with the sulky old Maybot no doubt basking in the same euphoric sense of karma at Boris’s toppling as Ted did when Maggie was forced out in 1990. Her blatant visual statement was not wholly unique amongst her colleagues, though it had more of an outing on the other side of the House, where both the SNP and the Labour Party came across as scoring petty political points with what could be viewed as rather childish petulance. Or maybe they were merely in mourning as the man who they probably regarded as their greatest electoral asset left the stage. For voters allergic to the louder-than-life Boris, Sir Keir presented them with the perfect colourless antidote, whereas the Labour leader will now be going head-to-head with either a Tory PM who mirrors his blandness (Sunak) or one who reflects his dullness back at him (Truss). Both candidates could make the chalk & cheese contrasts Starmer was dependent upon with Boris at the next Election a suddenly redundant weapon.
‘Focus on the road ahead, but always remember to check the rear-view mirror’ were amongst Boris’s final telling words to the Commons as PM, something that could be perceived as another dig in the direction of the man who set the ball rolling a couple of weeks ago. Rishi Sunak is viewed by some Tories as being as guilty of treachery as Michael Heseltine once was, which might explain the otherwise unfathomable reason why Boris loyalist Liz Truss has managed to make it all the way to the final two, regardless of her dismal performances in the TV debates. And, of course, there’s the old saying concerning the wielder of the dagger failing to wear the crown; Rishi is seen as the assassin by Boris disciples, and perhaps the only option open to them that might soothe the pain is to see Sunak denied Downing Street by Liz Truss. Don’t rule it out as an outcome, though they should be careful what they wish for.
Last night, ‘Newsnight’ excavated some typically embarrassing early TV footage of both contenders, with 2001-vintage Sunak resembling one of those interchangeable adolescent archetypes routinely upgraded every couple of years on the likes of ‘Neighbours’. Meanwhile, the clip of Liz Truss in her former political life, speaking at the Lib Dem Conference in 1994, was pretty much up there in the toe-curling stakes with the infamous schoolboy incarnation of William Hague in 1977. Truss looked and sounded like the sort of annoying middle-class student who can’t help herself from lecturing anyone within range on a subject she’s just read about for the first time the day before, acting the expert in the most condescending way imaginable. True, most of us would find footage of ourselves as teenagers something of an endurance test, but it was possible to see in the 19-year-old Liz Truss the unmistakable genesis of everything about her that remains irritating three decades later.
The last man to relocate from No.11 to No.10 was Gordon Brown, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for Rishi Sunak. However, one of the reasons the dour Scotsman failed to connect with the electorate was his cringe-inducing attempts to echo the overconfident slickness of the man he replaced as soon as he moved next-door. A personality transplant carried out in public painfully highlighted the fact Gordon Brown was not Tony Blair, and all the forced Colgate-ad smiles and head-shaking efforts at cracking jokes during speeches failed miserably. What Gordon Brown should have offered was an alternative to Blair, not a supermarket own-brand version of him, and when it comes to following Boris the one thing we can at least be certain of is that neither Sunak nor Truss will take the Brown route; they’re playing upon the fact they can’t be anything but an alternative. The Boris character, seemingly the unholy offspring of PG Wodehouse and Jilly Cooper, is an utterly impossible act to follow in terms of imitation; Boris has inhabited that character for so many years now that he became a parody of himself a long time ago, and any attempt to ‘do a Boris’ by his successor would be like Mike Yarwood succeeding Harold Wilson in 1976.
So, what we are left with is the bland and the boring. Sunak has the ‘Cameron factor’ that both May and Boris lacked, even if it’s a one-time winner that the electorate had already become weary of by the time of the EU Referendum. On the other hand, one of the few things Truss has in common with Boris is her knack of saying something stupid in public, as well as a stint as Foreign Secretary almost as memorable as that of Johnson, if only for her embarrassing grasp of geography giving the game away. Sunak is too polished and too smooth, whereas Truss is a poor communicator prone to gaffes – no wonder the latter is regarded as ‘the continuity candidate’ by Boris groupies like Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Neither of them, however, is offering a clear vision for the country other than promising the usual goodie-bag of incentives to win over voters. Truss says she will reverse the National Insurance rise and suspend the green levy; Sunak says he will cut income tax and increase corporation tax. And that’s about it.
According to the latest listings, Sunak and Truss will engage in a debate on the BBC next Monday, and the cancelled Sky debate is scheduled to belatedly take place in a couple of weeks. Whether or not any further sparks will be ignited when the two are deprived of the other candidates whose interjections and accusations at least made the programme worth watching is something we don’t yet know. Whatever happens, neither can look forward to the lucrative book deals and after-dinner speaking their departing predecessor is probably pencilling into his diary before handing the chalice he poisoned to the lucky winner in September.
© The Editor