And then there were two.
This last week has accommodated one of the most fast-paced and unpredictable party leadership elections in modern history. In exceptional time the candidates have been whittled from eleven to two: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.
There were two televised debates (though, there were supposed to be three), countless public and private hustings and no doubt excessive amounts of political bargaining. After all that the party has concluded it will advance two continuity candidates to the membership run-off due to be held in August and announced on 5th September.
Rishi Sunak was always guaranteed a spot in the final two. Positioning first among MPs in all five parliamentary ballots, it would have been a dramatic turn of fortune for him to be relegated to third place in Wednesday’s vote.
The fate of Liz Truss was more difficult to determine. In the first few rounds, she struggled to garner momentum and for a few days it looked all but certain that Penny Mordaunt would rise from relative obscurity and seize the keys to Number 10. But in the final ballot Liz Truss, like a thief in the night, snuck past Mordaunt to secure the second-place finish – 113 votes to 105.
This will be a costly mistake for the party.
I have long believed Boris Johnson to be fundamentally unfit for high office; no Prime Minister in modern times has spoken with more dishonesty and less integrity; his entire premiership has been one self-inflicted scandal after another; his removal from office was belated and required. And yet having said all that, it’s not enough to replace Mr Johnson for the sake of it. If Conservative MPs were determined to oust their most successful leader in a generation, they ought to have been sure that a competent and electable replacement was lined up to succeed him.
This race provided the Conservatives with a great opportunity to restore national confidence in the party. There were several compelling candidates who manifested the change that would ensure the conservatives would sail to an unprecedented fifth consecutive victory at the next general election.
For the rank and file of the Conservative Party, though they spoke along divergent ideological lines, those candidates were Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat. The trio inspired Conservative members, and to some extent the wider electorate, that a new form of leadership was possible. One that refocused on a parliamentary system of governing, drawing away from the presidential-esque qualities we’ve embraced in recent times. Polls consistently positioned Mordaunt and Tugendhat as the most electable would-be Tory leaders while Badenoch’s support has soared among members in the last week.
If this race were down to party members alone, Badenoch and Mordaunt would now be prepping to tour the country in a round of hustings to persuade the party faithful. The parliamentary party sought a different path and in an alarming act of self-harm they have ensured either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will be elevated to the highest office in the land. This alone manifests the disconnect between parliamentarians and the grassroots folk they purport to represent.
Rishi Sunak is a steady hand, but his chief shortcoming is his unassuming personality. Typically, this would be a compliment, but in the cut throat world of politics a commanding and assertive nature is elemental. A PMQs between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer would be like watching a boxing match between a sloth and a starfish.
It is also claimed by the former Chancellor that he is best placed to restore the economy to its pre-pandemic glory. The problem for Sunak being that it was he who presided over the tax burden increasing to its largest in fifty years while the UK leads the developed world with record levels of inflation.
Liz Truss evolves her political thinking based on whatever way the prevailing wind is blowing. She is a former Liberal Democrat, a former anti-monarchist, a former Remainer, a former proponent of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the list goes on and on and on. A ship steered by shooting stars is destined to sink.
Her latest political gambit is a pledge to slash a vast range of taxes to the tune of £34 billion. The next Conservative leader must gradually enact tax cuts and lower government spending, but a sudden and un-costed splurge would fuel inflation and leave families no better off.
Sunak and Truss are tarnished by the longevity of their service under Mr Johnson. At the next election, it will be impossible to avoid the accusations of sleaze and dishonesty that could have been consigned to history with the selection of a different candidate.
It is also difficult to conceive that Sunak or Truss could command the same levels of support which Boris Johnson mustered in the traditional Labour heartlands. Their only hope is that Keir Starmer remains at the helm on the Labour party, acting as a foil for allegations they are lacklustre.
In just over a month’s time either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will be walking through the door of Number 10 Downing Street as the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. That is now the decision of Conservative party members. But in placing Truss and Sunak on the ballot, Tory MPs are the turkeys that voted for Christmas.