If the chaos of recent weeks in British politics has clarified anything, it’s the almost complete schism between Conservative MPs and the party’s members. That Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have made it to the final round of the Tory leadership contest, ahead of their more popular rivals, paints the Conservatives as a party that no longer wishes nor deserves to win. Not since a close ally of David Cameron’s described Tory activists in 2013 as ‘mad, swivel-eyed loons’ has contempt for the party’s grass-roots membership – or rather, complete indifference to their wishes – been so marked.
Were there a credible opposition, this would not matter so much. Yet one has the uncomfortable feeling of a group of entrusted Tory politicians simply abandoning us to Starmer’s Britain – a five-year adenoidal homily – while they jockey for position and play tribal games of their own.
Take, for example, the party’s decision to eliminate Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch from the leadership ballot this week. In a poll after the pair had been given the boot, Tory activists were asked: ‘Which, if any, of the following candidates would you have most wanted to replace Boris Johnson?’. Penny and Kemi came out on top: Badenoch with 24 per cent, Mordaunt with 20 per cent; Truss and Sunak trailed them at 13 per cent and 11 per cent respectively. No matter either that in a Daily Telegraph readers’ poll on 13 July, when there were still six candidates left, Badenoch romped home with a third of the vote.
Meanwhile, party members seem to have woken up to the fact that Boris Johnson’s ousting was done almost entirely without their say-so. Tory activists are now demanding a vote on Johnson’s continuation in office; a petition calling for his reinstatement has reached over 18,000 signatures. This is to be expected, given it is less than three years since Johnson delivered the largest Conservative majority since the 1980s. The Tories seem currently to be bearing out historian Robert Conquest’s rule: that the decisions of big organisations only make sense if you assume them to be run by a cabal of their enemies.
One can understand the Conservatives’ jettisoning of Mordaunt this Wednesday, since it became apparent that, despite her presentability, some of her views on issues such as trans rights were out of step with Conservative voters. Yet the dumping of Kemi Badenoch from the leadership ballot may seem before long a catastrophically missed chance, an opportunity for renewal inexplicably tossed away. Badenoch is feared by a Labour party that finds it difficult to attack her. She’s also massively popular with the members, is patriotic, articulate and doesn’t dodge a fight. Making her leader would have been a bold, imaginative choice.
Instead Tory MPs opted for the status quo, two years out from an election in which they look to be in deep trouble. We have ended up with Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Slick Sunak, the multi-millionaire who took out Boris; a man who always seems to be selling you a Ford Focus on hire-purchase while neglecting to mention the interest rate. Truss, a politician who connects with no one, who makes Theresa May look like Evita Peron, and whose entire demeanour is of the hand-wringing headmistress at a girls’ boarding school.
It seems the party, if not the public, have very short memories. In April this year it was widely reported that Rishi Sunak had become, in a survey of the membership, ‘the most unpopular minister in cabinet.’ In February, in a last-minute round of shuttle diplomacy trying to avert Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Truss stated to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that Britain would ‘never recognise Russian sovereignty’ over the regions of Rostov and Voronezh. She had to have it gently pointed out to her that these regions lay not in Ukraine but Russia. The Foreign Office said Truss’s remarks had been taken out of context, but, whatever the truth, it handed an easy win to Lavrov and the Russian government.
‘Ms Truss, your knowledge of history is nothing compared to your knowledge of geography,’ said Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova. ‘If anyone needs saving from anything, it’s the world, from the stupidity and ignorance of British politicians.’
Truss’s sketchy geography when trying to avert a major war does not bode well for her grasp of detail or priorities in future. Nor does another blunder she committed after war broke out, when Truss said she would ‘absolutely’ back Brits who wished to fight in Ukraine. Her words seemed ill-judged at the time. And the fate of some of those Brits who have travelled to the battlefields of Ukraine since undoubtedly calls her judgement into question.
Can Tory MPs really be afflicted with such a death-wish as to opt for Truss or Rishi? It’s as though a football manager were deliberately fielding their reserves. You’re reminded of a scene from the Damned United, Tom Hooper’s 2009 biopic of Brian Clough. During his miserable tenure at Leeds United, challenged by player Johnny Giles on some of his decisions, Clough finally pulls rank and arrogantly snaps at him: ‘I don’t have to justify myself to you.’
‘No,’ says Giles, pointing to the stadium seats. ‘Not to us. But come Saturday afternoon there’ll be 40,000 people out there who you do have to justify yourself to.’
Substitute ‘people’ for ‘voters’ and ‘Saturday afternoon’ for ‘2024’ and…you get the picture. You can bet Tory MPs don’t.
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