There is obviously something very strange about having two Tory contenders to be our next prime minister go on television to make their cases – with the vast majority of the audience having no say on the outcome. It’s like I’m A Celeb, Strictly, or Love Island stirring the usual irrational feelings about the eccentric contestants, but with no phone number or app to register your feelings. No matter how wooden, robotic or ignorant Liz Truss is, we can’t vote her out.
If Conservative member surveys are correct, no one can stop Truss attempting to lead the nation and represent it abroad. Nor can we do much about rejecting Rishi Sunak. He’s obviously more capable and saner than Truss, but he’s still unlikeable. He’s the smart but spoiled head boy, the pushy fresher, eager to please and exuding all the faux-niceness of a second-tier children’s television presenter.
Such are the dynamics of this contest that the debates and process itself will be deeply injurious to the British national interest. The candidates have to compete by bidding up their rightwing credentials. They have to push the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill even harder, even if it threatens peace in Ireland and means a trade war with our biggest export market. If there was no contest, Johnson would probably have found a way to fudge things again, but because these two have to pander to the extreme populous-nationalist right, there’s no room for ambiguity or doubt.
Same with the Rwanda refugee deportation plan. Under Johnson it would have drifted into irrelevance, with little effect, and demoted to “pilot scheme” status. Now, Truss and Sunak are talking wildly about expanding it and extending it to other countries, and are close to withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights because it’s getting in the way of them, well, violating human rights.
There is no incentive for either candidate to soften their attitudes and appeal to the national centre ground, as they would in a general election. For those imagining that things were bound to get better with Boris Johnson gone, it is proving a chastening experience. It’s difficult to accept that the world’s oldest and most successful political party is unable to rustle up a pair better than Sunak and Truss. All we want is someone who is bright, hard-working and honest. Is it really too much to ask?
But here we are. If the earlier TV debates are anything to go by, the BBC event should be spicy. Moderated by Sophie Raworth, who has proved herself a sharp, no-nonsense political interviewer on a Sunday morning, and with the heat trained now on just two candidates, rather than dissipated among the no-hopers, it is bound to be uncomfortable for them. They seem not to like each other, nor even respect one another.
When they start tearing each other apart again, Sunak and Truss will merely confirm the public perception that the Tories are bitterly divided, devoid of fresh ideas, with not much top talent. All the pair can do is go for extremes, for radicalism for its own sake, in a country that yearns for stability and a quiet life.
It doesn’t matter if Liz Truss crashes and burns on tax cuts and inflation, because the 175,000 or so Tory members who will be voting have mostly made their minds up already. The postal ballot papers will be sent out between 1st and 5th August, and many will be sent back with an X by the name of Truss. Sunak has little time to correct the apparent deficit in his support.
Rightly or wrongly, they’ve got it into their heads that she will “stand up for Britain” and jolly well tell the French what to do about the mess at Dover. They hate “woke”, Europe and migrants, and whoever they think hates those things as much as they do will get their vote. Truss could trip over on stage, forget the name of the German chancellor and say they hate kittens, and the Tories would still vote for her. (Well, maybe not the kittens).
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Needless to say, in their views, their age profile, their economic interests and geographic spread, the Tory selectorate is far removed from the population as a whole. Older, whiter, richer, no pollster would accept them as a representative sample of the voters.
To be a political activist is not so very different to being a member of a religious cult, and you can very easily become detached from reality. The disconnect gets worse the longer a party is in power, the more complacent it grows, the more it believes its own fabulous myths and fables, and the more it cannot conceive that a long-weakened and despised opposition could remove it from office.
As they select their next cult leader they’re not picking one who will be able to convince and convert a sceptical electorate back to the Conservative cause, but the one who will make them feel good about themselves. The new leader will lead them, they believe, through sheer magnetism, charisma and willpower, to the promised land of a fifth term in office. But they get Liz instead, and she’s still very angry about cheese.
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