The prospect of Liz Truss becoming the United Kingdom’s third female prime minister is antagonising all the right people.
Almost the entire Remainer establishment – including state-sponsored leftist comedians, professors of European studies, AC Grayling, senior figures at the Times newspaper, Irish government insiders – is recoiling at the thought.
It is only partly as a result of this that I find myself thawing towards her – if not quite warming – and hoping she defeats Rishi Sunak when the votes of the wider Conservative membership are counted in early September.
This is a U-turn on my part. Anticipating this contest as a distinct possibility I wrote a somewhat prophetic piece for this site in December which concluded as follows: ‘If Tory MPs and grassroots members are asked to choose between their Chancellor and Foreign Secretary to take up the reins next year then he is their best bet by far.’
Part of the case set out in that piece was that Truss had campaigned for Remain in the referendum, while Sunak had been a Leaver. As a Ukip MEP at the time, I had even taken on Truss in the set-piece BBC East televised referendum debate. Not only was she on the ‘wrong’ team, but she did not prove to be an especially strong debater either.
When she became the first cabinet minister to recant her support for Remain – which she did live on air on the BBC’s Daily Politicsjust a couple of weeks after the referendum – I naturally snorted at the cynicism of it all.
But when one looks at her record six years on, it can only be concluded that she has been as good as her word. No cabinet minister has been more staunch than Truss about pursuing Brexit, whether it be via the energetic securing of bi-lateral trade deals or on the matter of pressurising the EU to agree improvements to the Northern Ireland protocol.
By contrast Sunak appears to have carried on behaving just as he did in the referendum – when he formally came out for Leave but then played almost no active role in helping the cause. Legend has it that he turned up to one Vote Leave dinner and then disappeared during the actual campaign. And now word has it that in his final few weeks as Chancellor he sought to frustrate the government’s strategy of cranking up pressure on Brussels to give ground on arrangements for Northern Ireland.
From the point of view of convinced Leavers, Truss has surely behaved far better. She understood the referendum was a profound moment in our democratic politics and fully engaged with it, arguing energetically for what she believed. And then, having been on the losing side, she accepted the result and got behind it.
Her positions on other touchstone issues are also preferable to Sunak’s. She fought hard, alongside Kemi Badenoch, to steer the government away from gender self-ID while Sunak refused to tell the broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer what he thought a woman is, other than to say in best head boy fashion that Boris Johnson had answered the question perfectly in the House of Commons.
One also gets the feeling that while Truss is properly committed to making the government’s Rwanda removals policy work – even if that ultimately means bailing out of the European Court of Human Rights – Sunak’s support for it is mere lip-service that would be rapidly rescinded were he to become PM.
Truss did so badly in the first televised debate in this contest – last Friday on Channel 4 – that even some of her own campaign team thought she had blown her chances. But two days later she bounced back, performing far more strongly in the ITV version and standing up to Sunak when he snidely asked which she regretted most, having once been a Lib Dem or having supported Remain. That takes a certain psychological toughness that is useful in a putative premier.
So does having served and survived – prospered even – on the government frontbench continuously for a full decade under three different prime ministers.
Truss remains a far less fluent communicator than is Sunak. His command of the arguments in favour of his far more cautious approach to the economy is impressive too. But anyone who has studied the ‘dismal science’ of economics will appreciate that nobody knows much for sure anyway. While others warned that double-digit inflation was approaching, Sunak did little to challenge the loose monetary policy that is now deemed to have helped to fuel it.
Sunak’s latest campaign video blog, put out yesterday, also leaves me wondering if he is quite as smart as he thinks he is or whether vanity has taken him over. In it he raised the question of who was best placed to defeat Keir Starmer and Labour and then stated in terms: ‘I believe I am the only candidate who can do that.’ That is not merely non-collegiate and disrespectful to Truss, but also a non-adept thing to have said, effectively damning the Tories as inevitable losers should she become prime minister and making it difficult for her to bring him into a new cabinet. The Conservative grassroots will not like it and nor should they.
Grateful that my colleagues have put their trust in me today.
I will work night and day to deliver our message around the country.
— Ready For Rishi (@RishiSunak) July 20, 2022
We have one candidate with a long track record of working on her weaknesses and another held in thrall by his perception of his own strengths. Neither can offer the Tories the transformative moment that Badenoch could have done. But of the two, it is Truss – awkward and gritty, bete noire of the left intelligentsia – who has more to commend her.
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