21 October 2022

Be in no doubt, for the Conservatives this is an existential contest


Liz Truss aimed to be Margaret Thatcher and ended up as Kim Campbell. For those of you unfamiliar with Canada’s only female Prime Minister, Campbell inherited the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party (don’t ask) in 1993. 130-odd days later, she led them into the 1993 federal election, where the party lost all but two seats – political wipe-out on a par with the K-2 impact.

If current polling is to be believed, a Truss-led Tory party would have performed similarly at the polls. So, Sir Graham Brady read her the last rites, and I have to lose sleep over the second Tory leadership election in my six months or so at ConservativeHome.

One would struggle to argue Truss shouldn’t have gone. Her shambolic premiership has deservedly replaced George Canning’s as a pub quiz question answer. Nevertheless, the appalling context has rendered this mercifully swift contest an existential one for the Conservatives. A 1906, 1945, or 1997-style rout at the next election currently looks like a good option. The task of our next leader is not only to manage the grim situation that Truss inherited – and worsened – but to try and prevent our party from going the way of Betamax and the Soviet Union. 

The last time the party was in such a perilous state – all the way back in, erm, 2019 – we sent for Boris Johnson, on the basis he was known for winning two mayoral elections, one referendum, and an arm wrestle with Jeremy Clarkson. The darling of the grassroots, with the Heineken touch that allowed him to woo voters who wouldn’t otherwise consider the Tories – and that got us that stonking majority. 

The situation now – as the former premier dashes home from the Dominican Republic, and Jacob Rees-Mogg gets the old band together – is that Johnson held the role, and was forced out of it only two months ago. To misquote Tacitus on Galba, had he never been Prime Minister, no one would have doubted Johnson’s ability to reign.

Now, though, the situation is rather different. As the pollster James Johnson has spelt out on CapX, whatever unique electoral appeal his namesake once had has long since dissipated in a fog of small boats, inflation, and Covid-era tupperware. Moreover, he still faces an inquiry from the privileges committee into Partygate that could see him expelled from the Commons, if enough angry Tory MPs vote with the Opposition, that is.

For MPs and pollsters pearl-clutching at the prospect of a swift Johnson return, they would argue that their man has come back from political oblivion before and can do so again. As ludicrous as it sounds, you could not entirely rule it out.

Things are not so simple though. Before Mr and Mrs Johnson can be reunited with their beloved Downing Street wallpaper, they will have to get past both MPs and, potentially, party members. The setting of the threshold for nominations at only 100 has made this rather easier for Johnson that might have been expected. If no other candidate from the right stands, he would then face a membership that didn’t really want him gone in the first place.

Hoping to stop him – and currently neck-and-neck in the nominations stakes – is the man who Liz Truss beat to the prize only a few weeks ago. Rishi Sunak must be feeling rather smug right now. He told members that Trussonomics would be a disaster and was swiftly vindicated. If the Truss government ended up forced into Sunak measures, he may argue, it may as well be replaced by the man himself. 

But if it was that easy Sunak would already be Prime Minister. Despite being a Brexiteer who has been sceptical on Net Zero and is a Thatcherite in the historically accurate sense, members perceived of Dishi Rishi as the man – rightly or wrongly – who had done the most to force Johnson out. His tax rises, alongside revelations about his wife’s tax affairs, hardly helped. 

It is an open question as to whether a Johnson or Sunak final two would do anything other than further highlight the divisions within the Conservative Party.

This could be avoided, if another historical precedent is followed. In 1911 Austen Chamberlain and Walter Long, the two frontrunners, dropped out of the leadership race to avoid splitting the party over Tariff Reform.  As a result, Andrew Bonar Law became the party’s leader, despite having never even been a Cabinet minister.

The third-place candidate this time around has been. Yet Penny Mordaunt – as International Development Secretary, and briefly Defence Secretary and now Leader of the Commons – has never been as prominent a politician as either Johnson or Sunak.  Her difficulty is that she is already lagging behind the two frontrunners in terms of MP nominations – and neither is likely to drop out for the same candidate who placed third last time around. She certainly has her supporters in Parliament, and arguably has a better case for being a genuine ‘unity’ candidate than either Johnson or Sunak. 

Even then, to quote her late Majesty, one must ask why anyone would want the job at a time like this. Inheriting tanking poll ratings is one thing. Doing so when cutting spending and raising taxes is a fiscal necessity is another. That comes alongside the rest of this winter’s coming Omnicrisis: blackouts, strikes, inflation, punishing interest rates, shortages, and potential nuclear escalation in Ukraine. 

Against this backdrop, my party is once again indulging in another internecine personality contest. This follows a few weeks where we have looked utterly incompetent: installing a Prime Minister most MPs did not think was up to the job, and then letting her prove it in the most obvious way possible. I would say we were fiddling whilst Rome burnt, but this winter looks rather too cold for that. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.