After all that, Sunak entered the final members’ round to be Tory leader and UK PM with a comfortable 24 vote margin of advantage over the runner-up Liz Truss. But her 113 votes are enough of a mandate from MPs to present Sunak with a serious challenge during the summer contest.
Tory members, who according to surveys seemingly prefer Truss to Sunak, can’t be swayed by the idea that Truss would not be able to lead MPs because too few support her – which would have been a credible argument if Sunak had been supported by nearer 200 of his colleagues. So the fight is on. And it is for the economic soul of the Tory party, because there is an important ideological divide between Sunak and Truss – with Truss saying cut taxes now, and Sunak arguing taxes should only be cut after inflation is tamed and the public finances are in better shape.
What is striking is that the next Tory leader will represent continuity with the Johnson years, because both were such big fish in his cabinet for so long. This may appeal to some Tory members, who regret Johnson’s eviction. And indeed they may reward Truss for her relative loyalty to Johnson (she didn’t quit the government when Sunak did).
But neither Sunak nor Truss can claim to be untainted by the chaos of Johnson’s later months in government. They won’t represent – and won’t be able to claim – a completely fresh start. Which will thrill the Labour party, which wants to be able to keep reminding the wider electorate of all Boris Johnson’s seeming ethical shortcomings from now till the general election. That is why lesser known, junior minister Penny Mordaunt was the seemingly higher risk but higher reward candidate.
Just under a third of Tory MPs wanted to take that risk. They’ll now need to show loyalty to a leader they didn’t want. What chance of that? History would say slim to none.
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