It is hard to love the Conservative party. But one reason it has at least always commanded a certain amount of respect is thanks to its reputation for ruthless efficiency. Personally I have found that reputation to be only half true. It is true that the party can be ruthless, but only in being ruthlessly inefficient.
Look at the mechanism by which it removed the Prime Minister who brought it its largest majority since Margaret Thatcher. True, Boris Johnson had his faults. But did the party not know these in advance? Why was it not able to add the stabilisers so obviously needed to keep a rickety, not to mention rackety, figure in the top job once it had placed him there?
It should cause no surprise. For this is of course the party that gave us John Major, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, elevating each in turn only to discover each time that a knifing was sadly necessary. It is the party whose most successful leader in recent decades was David Cameron, who entered parliament in 2001, was swiftly enthroned in the top job, managed to form a minority coalition government, and was out of parliament again within just 15 years. It is the party that then gave us Theresa May as prime minister, after a period in which there was a brief, Penny Mordaunt-like fever to make Andrea Leadsom run the country.
Now here we are again. The parliamentary party has done what it is so good at. The political assassination has occurred. The 1922 Committee has once again become a subject of national interest. And the Conservatives have once again presented the country with a lot of people who would be perfectly good ministers of state, but nobody who seems wildly obvious prime ministerial material. At least the assassins of Julius Caesar had a plan of sorts for afterwards.
Personally I have found most of the race to be excruciating. All the vices of the Conservative parliamentary members and grassroots are there on full view. The appeals to things like ‘one-nation conservatism’ which mean absolutely nothing to the wider public, even if any of the party faithful understand. Then there is the permanent temptation to put the whole future of the country in the hands of almost any plausibly matron-like figure. The perpetual desire of the Tory male to feel the personal smack of firm government.
At the time of writing, we only know who the last three are. But even among the three of them there is a cloud of doubt.
Mordaunt has been the subject of sustained attacks from her rivals. But all seem to be deserved. It is true that when she had the equalities portfolio (a job any real Conservative government would scrap) she oversaw – either deliberately or ignorantly – some deeply unsound policies on trans issues. It is also true that she went off-piste in meeting with a Muslim group which was deemed too radical to engage with not just by each recent Conservative government, but by the last Labour government. Ask Hazel Blears.
Liz Truss exudes an impression of competency, but it does seem like an impression. Like someone who has seen an effective person at work and knows how to pretend to be such a person. That said, I wasn’t much more taken with Rishi Sunak in the debates. In the second debate he tried to trap Truss by asking her which of her past mistakes – being a Liberal Democrat in the 1990s, or a Remainer in 2016 – she regretted more. For once Truss was passed the ball and kicked it quite expertly back into Rishi’s net, describing her journey to conservatism with some real conviction. It was an interesting reply, but much more interesting was the helpless look that came across Sunak’s face as he saw his trap go wrong. His eyes started to go down, he began avoiding eye contact and his smile of faux-sincere interest started to take on a rictus quality and then a sweaty one. It was the reaction of a political novice.
He is probably the person best suited for the top job. But moments of weakness like that do not fill me with confidence. A prime minister must know how to master any such situation. They should be hungry. They should be willing and able to bite the head off any opponent. Sunak looks too much like someone who has floated to the top and rarely had to get his hands dirty with political debate, never mind political warfare.
How did the Tories get into this state? Well one answer is that it is the state that the Conservative party is always in. The ghastly re-emergence of Major in recent days should be a reminder of that. But I cannot help thinking that it has also been held back by the horrible slowness of this country’s political discourse in recent years. Kemi Badenoch did terrifically in the debates and in her run for leader. She should get a good job in the next cabinet. But what does it say about the state of political discourse in Britain that the candidates had to get engaged in a debate about trans issues which just five years ago would have been regarded as disqualifying for a pass in GCSE biology?
It is the same with other issues that gunked up the debates. Where was the real discussion of economic vision? Of what the candidates would do to address inflation, the cost of living and more? While Mordaunt’s ignorance on trans and Muslim issues was brought to the fore, it also made the whole leadership race effectively have to go at the pace of the slowest kid in the class.
The Conservatives have treated themselves to another brutally inefficient leadership contest. Most of the public has no idea who these people are, and nothing much to get excited about. Whoever gets the prize has a couple of years to turn this country around. If they don’t, we won’t be talking about Red Walls, but a Red Wave coming.