Britain’s next prime minister must be a true believer
It’s a long, hot summer in Britain, and 150,000 people are choosing our next prime minister.
One candidate is a charmless patrician, chock-full of intelligent, informed responses. The other talks about “defying orthodoxy” – a more fanciful version of “draining the swamp” – and is accused of denying reality. Do you want to make a bet on who will win?
Last week, the race to succeed Boris Johnson narrowed to two candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. They will spend the summer soliciting the only voters, the members of the Conservative Party, who will register their choice by post or online, before the announcement of the result on September 5. How many of these powerful voters are there? The most common estimate is 150,000, which is equivalent to 0.2% of the UK population, but no one outside the party knows for sure, as the Tories will not give exact figures on how many they members. The next prime minister could be chosen by the votes of a million people. Or by three dogs in trench coats. We just have to trust them, whoever they are.
If that sounds like a bad system, it is. It is the second time in six years that the Conservative Party has overthrown a Prime Minister and chosen a successor without consulting the entire electorate. In American terms, this summer’s contest between Truss and Sunak is a primary with no subsequent election — a recipe for candidates to pander to the prejudices and obsessions of a minority, with little regard for the judgment of the majority. The next national poll is not expected until at least 2024.
When the United States allows a few hundred thousand people to decide an election, it asks them at least to live in Michigan or Wisconsin. Members of the Conservative Party are more geographically diverse, but they are also not representative of the whole of the UK. “Older, well-to-do white Southerners may be a bit of a cartoon, but it’s not that far from the truth,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, recently. FinancialTimes. These voters are more economically secure than the average Briton, as homeownership rates rise with age, and less bothered by rising interest rates, as many have paid off their mortgages. They are therefore less likely to feel a sense of impending economic catastrophe than low-income people of working age.
They are also a lot more likely to have voted to leave the European Union. You might expect that to improve Brexiteer Rishi Sunak’s odds over Liz Truss, who voted to stay. Truss even gave one of the most impactful speeches of the 2016 campaign, saying that “less trade would mean less investment, it would mean less jobs, and it would affect people’s incomes…I think the British are sensible people. They understand, fundamentally, that economically Britain would be better off staying in a reformed EU.
But since 2016, Truss has stealthily accomplished one of the great brand changes in modern politics. She became a born-again Brexiteer, displaying all the zeal of the convert. His campaign for leadership relied heavily on his ability to seize “opportunities” available outside the EU, first as trade minister and then as foreign minister. So how big are these opportunities? And how impressive is his capitalization record on them? Allow me to answer you by telling you that one of his supporters, Therese Coffeyoffered the reintroduction of beavers—yes, big teeth, building dams, those beavers – as one of Truss’ greatest achievements in government. Big phew. Rishi Sunak, a wealthy former financier, could break that record in an afternoon if he wanted to, simply by getting three dozen eagles from the black market and releasing them into his backyard.
So far, all polls of Conservative members put Truss ahead of Sunak. Its greater appeal to conservative members has several potential explanations, though none of the obvious ones are immediately compelling. (A pollster admitted to me privately that he struggled to see what Tory members love so much about Truss.) Sunak quit Boris Johnson’s government, helping bring him down, while Truss kept the faith . Maybe Tory MPs value loyalty. Sunak will not promise immediate tax cuts to voters struggling with rising prices and energy bills; Truss wants at least £30bn of it. Perhaps Tory MPs think lower taxes are the best path to economic growth and reject Sunak’s argument that true conservatism means discipline and caution. Sunak went to an expensive private boarding school and Truss attended a state-funded school. Maybe the Tories don’t like the privilege, but then again, Sunak’s parents were immigrants to Britain and both candidates attended Oxford University. None of these explanations fits perfectly.
What Tory MPs Surely Are not search is the most skilled or alpha candidate. Truss and Sunak are sort of dweeby. There’s probably no good way for a politician to brag in a speech that he’s “opening up new pork markets,” but Truss’ smirk after doing so has become a haunting meme. Sunak, meanwhile, is picky and obsessive; he always reminds me of Niles Crane from fraser. He once handed out coasters to reporters because their sweaty drinks were too inconvenient, and he limits himself to one Coke a week, “as a Saturday night treat with his wife.” This woman, by the way, is an Indian telecommunications heiress who is even richer than Maris Crane.
There remains Brexit, which is now less a policy than an atmosphere. Boris Johnson associated Brexit with his own boosterism – make Britain great again! – and this association has remained. No Negative Nellie or Colin Prudent will be tolerated. Any politician who warns, as Sunak did, that the country’s finances are still battered by COVID-19 and that more economic suffering is on the way, is now seen in a miasmic and indefinable way as betraying the promise of the Brexit. Things were supposed to get better once we left the EU, after all, and with around three-quarters of voters in this contest being Brexiteers, they don’t want to be told they bought a lemon. Truss’s born-again Brexitism is more flattering: she now says she would vote Leave if the referendum were held again. In other words, yes, she was once a skeptic, but she has changed. And there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who need no repentance.
The power of Truss’ conversion was evident during the debate between her and Sunak, which was hosted by the BBC in the Midlands town of Stoke-on-Trent on Monday night. The audience was made up of conservative members, and the difference from previous crowds was stark. In the previous Channel 4 debate, with an audience drawn from across the electorate, the general consensus was that Johnson was a borner, a boor and a mountebank, and that anyone who remained in his cabinet was tainted with association. Tory MPs in Stoke reacted differently. When Truss rated Johnson’s time in office at “seven out of 10,” the public barely budged. When Sunak asked the same question, he initially dithered over Johnson’s larger case and was met with silence. Then he said: ‘Actually delivering a solution to Brexit and winning an election is a 10 out of 10. You have to give him credit for that. No one else could have done this.” Those lines drew the loudest applause of the night. In short, this Conservative leadership race leaves no room for a balanced assessment of Brexit – which Britain has gained greater control over immigration and trade policy at the cost of an Irish border crisis, more friction in trade and the loss of other rights No, it has to be everything Upside down. Boris Johnson won by a large margin and his triumph was glorious.
That sentiment made another appearance in Stoke when host Sophie Raworth asked the two candidates whether the recent chaos at UK ports – which has left families traveling to France stuck in traffic jams for hours at the weekend – end last – was caused by Brexit. “No,” they said in unison. But why France now stamp passports Britons going camping in Brittany, once he waved them through? Because when Britain “regained control” of its borders, so did France. And even if the French do not employ enough border agents, as the Johnson government claims, what recourse does Britain have outside the EU except to complain about it? But again, any criticism of Brexit is prohibited; rather blame the French. Denial of reality is now the price to pay for leading the Conservative Party.
Overall, it was a bad debate for Sunak, who pushed Truss hard on her tax plans and frequently interrupted her during early questions. Next, a Truss-campaign spokesperson accused him of “mansplaining”. Fighting the words, though Sunak’s mistake was more damaging than the occasional sexism. It was orthodoxy.
Sunak is clearly aware of his image problem: he constantly insists on his bourgeois origin, and whenever when asked about climate change, he claims to “take advice from my two young daughters, who are the experts on the subject in our household”. It’s just as bizarre as the time Elizabeth Warren promised to let a 9-year-old vet vet her candidates for education secretary. Both statements stem from the same impulse to try to sound folksy and authentic rather than sharp and elitist.
Nice try, but so far it’s not working for Sunak. A instant poll by Opinium found that a random sample of voters said the debate sucked and Sunak had a narrow lead on who would make the best prime minister. But among Conservative voters, the winner was clear: Liz Truss. On the British right, just like in America, a born-again believer is more attractive than the avatar of elite consensus, the credentialed insider, the man saying he’s from the government and he’s here to help .