Liz Truss was the biggest loser of last night’s debate

16 July 2022

3:57 PM

16 July 2022

3:57 PM

Enid Blyton made a lot of money out of the Famous Five. Maybe she could have invented a brand called the ‘Infamous Five’ that would have made her even more. But the Unfamous Five is a name that might have struggled to bear box office fruit.

Yet the glories of the British constitution are about to deliver one of five little-known people – none of whom has a substantial political following of their own – into the office of prime minister.

One out of Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat is about to become the political leader of the nation. Constitutionally, there is no issue about any of them taking over the mandate that the Conservative party won under Boris Johnson in December 2019.

In Britain, one votes for a local MP and a party rather than for a particular leader. That’s not really how it felt two and a half years ago. But fair play to Channel Four for last night gathering together every possible successor to Boris Johnson and making them argue with each other.

Did the debate lead to a game-changing moment? Not really. But it delivered a few jolts to what we thought we knew. The tieless Sunak came across like ruthless son Kendall at a Logan Roy corporate away day in the TV show Succession – killing papa Johnson in a way that risked revolting onlookers, but with a compelling edge to his criticisms nonetheless.

More importantly, a poised Mordaunt underlined her credentials, easily outdebating Truss who in turn was surely the big loser of the night, dressed in a Thatcher revivalist pussy bow but with none of the Iron Lady’s gravitas.

While Badenoch took her on directly on the vexed issue of gender self-ID, Truss failed to do so, instead appearing to be overly-keen not to come across as anti-trans. In such moments of hesitation are reputations made and lost.

Badenoch, resplendent in a yellow dress in contrast to the muted black and blue tones of her rivals, at times showed her huge potential. But did she do enough to drastically alter the voting intentions of Tory MPs next week? Time will tell but there was no obvious or clippable eight-second TV moment beyond her strong opening statement. Conservative MPs may take the easier path of concluding that she is a newly-discovered top-six talent, but not yet the Queen Bee.

Tugendhat’s downturned mouth and washed-out appearance turned him into the also-ran that his anaemic second round performance in the MPs’ vote might have led viewers to anticipate. Rather than go for the jugular on the issue of Boris Johnson’s alleged dishonesty he mainly shook his head more in sorrow than in anger.

So it looks like Sunak versus Mordaunt in the final round to be voted on by grassroots Tory members after a series of hustings in August. And Mordaunt will start as a clear favourite.

The Tory right, whose prime candidate is supposed to be Liz Truss, is on course to lose yet again because she is simply not a compelling enough figure to become prime minister. With a little more imagination it could swing behind Badenoch and disrupt this version of the future.

But it probably won’t because it is far too fixated on conventional measures of hierarchy and seniority and has never been proficient at seeing the wood for the trees.

Sunak is still in the game. Mordaunt is in the box seat. Badenoch maintains her ability to change the game, but Truss has second or third place written all over her.

Unless the right changes horses Penny from Pompey will probably be prime minister before the autumn leaves start to fall. On this showing she would have a perfectly serviceable chance against Keir Starmer in 2024 but it could go either way.

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