Is the ball about to come loose at the back of the scrum? Though an imminent defenestration of Boris Johnson is still just about odds-against, the chances of him leading the Tories into the next election are certainly receding.
Should a leadership contest be required as early as next year it is already clear who the two leading candidates would be. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak will face off against the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss for the right to define yet another new Tory era.
Truss is a total rookie in a great office of state, having been in post for just a few months. As someone yet to mark his second anniversary as Chancellor, Sunak is hardly a seasoned statesman either. But there is nobody around the Cabinet table who eclipses these two media performers.
Michael Gove, for all his brilliance, has never polled well with the wider public – even before his various recent acts of eccentricity. Priti Patel has become a by-word for failure. Dominic Raab has morphed into one of those clever men who keep saying stupid things. Sajid Javid is just a bit ‘meh’. And the rest of them might as well be on a roll-call of staff at Trumpton Fire Station – Pugh, Pugh, Barney Mcgrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grub.
So it will be Rishi, the king of social media graphics, against Liz, queen of the photoshoot. As gifted and highly-motivated climbers of the greasy pole, both will have sensed several weeks ago that the ultimate prize could soon be up for grabs. And both will also have figured out that the other is the main rival.
Hence Sunak’s plaintive coda late in his Budget about being an instinctive tax-cutter who does not believe in the state encroaching on personal responsibility, despite having spent most of his speech whacking up taxes and rolling forward the frontiers of the public sector. He was seeking to neutralise the Truss appeal to small-state, low-tax Conservatives in the wider party membership.
Given that the Tories stumbled into their new election-winning coalition of support almost by accident just two years ago – only Dominic Cummings appears to have had a profound appreciation of the potential for uniting ‘red wall’ voters and traditional shire Tories – they ought to think carefully about which of these two shiny new stars might best be able to keep it intact.
There is no guarantee that either will ever match the appeal of Boris in his pomp – who can forget that hand-painted ‘We Love Boris’ placard held aloft by workmen during the 2019 election campaign? But these days Boris can’t match the appeal of Boris in his pomp either.
People around Truss have pushed the idea that as a northern lass who went to a Leeds comprehensive school she is more in touch with the outlook of ordinary voters than Sunak, the Wykehamist who married into a family of billionaires. Certainly she has shown daring in exploiting her side-hustle as the government’s lead minister on equalities issues to stand up to the militant agenda of lobby groups such as Stonewall.
Some Truss-ites have also sought to paint her zealous promotion of free trade as red wall-friendly because of its alleged ability to feed through into lower prices for basic stuff in the shops.
In fact there is little evidence to suggest that voters in the rugby league towns of England are yearning for any higher level of exposure to the harsh winds of global capitalism. If Truss sets pulses racing, it is predominantly among traditional Thatcherites.
She milked every possible ounce of publicity from the trade deals she supervised in her last Cabinet post, though in truth most were simple ‘rollovers’ from previous EU arrangements and there is chatter among the cognoscenti that the deals which weren’t will be found to contain clauses that are disadvantageous to Britain.
As someone who debated against Truss on television during the Brexit referendum – when she was arguing for the losing side – I have to say it did not feel like I was in the presence of future greatness.
Sunak, in my judgment, has the greater potential appeal to all parts of the Tory electoral coalition simply because he is of a higher calibre as a thinker and communicator. In his not-quite-two-years in charge of the Treasury he has faced circumstances that would have proved too much for many of his more battle-hardened predecessors.
In effect, he and his Treasury engineers rapidly laid down an emergency stretch of track to divert the economic locomotive away from a disastrous obstruction on the line and then joined it back up to the pre-existing track once the blockage had been passed.
There has been no crash, no lurch into mass unemployment. Instead, the economy is bouncing back to its original size far quicker than it did after the significantly smaller contraction caused by the 2008 financial crisis. And it has all been achieved while coated in reassuring soundbites such as ‘it’s on all of us’.
Sunak does not seem to have particularly advanced antennae when it comes to understanding the authentic red wall mindset, revealed by his curious policy of seeking to push the minimum wage ever-closer to average earnings.
But if Tory MPs and grassroots members are asked to choose between their Chancellor or their Foreign Secretary to take up the reins next year then he is their best bet by far.