Tory Leadership Battle

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on July 29, 2022

Sri Lankan readers with a taste for schadenfreude might find light relief from their own troubles by enjoying the shenanigans in the British ruling party. The UK is on a similar trajectory of misgovernment, democratic deficit, inflation, budget deficiency, low growth, corruption, cronyism as are South Africa and Turkey, not to mention Russia. Like Sri Lanka, the UK has been cursed with a ruler who had a huge electoral success in 2019, but in a very short time, turned out to be a man of straw clinging to power, desperate and deluded.

In December 2019, Boris Johnson won 365 seats, a record majority of 80, in the Commons. This represented 43.6% of the popular vote, the highest percentage for any party since 1979. Johnson was eventually forced to go because Tory MPs could no longer tolerate the lying and cover-ups. The final straw that destroyed the man of straw was the predatory activities of deputy chief whip Chris Pincher (he had drunkenly groped two men at a club) and Johnson’s failure to act.

People had been waiting for so long for Johnson to resign that they did not at first notice that his “resignation” speech of July 7 was not what it seemed. He did not resign as prime minister, just as Conservative Party leader. He planned to hang around like a bad smell until a new party leader was chosen on September 5.

Five candidates were reduced to two after a number of ballots of the 365 Conservative MPs. Former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose resignation precipitated Johnson’s demise, is one of the remaining contenders; foreign secretary Liz Truss is the other. The members of the Conservative Party across the UK will choose between them. Roughly 180,000 Conservative Party members will decide the next leader of the UK. They are mostly old, posh, white, male, southern and very Eurosceptic. A close ally of David Cameron described them as “mad, swivel-eyed loons.” Around 0.3 per cent of the UK electorate will decide who the next prime minister will be. This puts into perspective our Sri Lankan method of choosing a leader.

The first televised debate, organised by the ConservativeHome website, was a pallid affair with robotic performances and technical glitches. They clearly decided to liven it up a bit for the Channel 4 and ITV debates. Things turned so nasty that a planned Sky News debate was cancelled. Sunak asked Truss: “You’ve been both a Liberal Democrat and a remainer. I’m just wondering which one of those you regretted most?” Truss had earlier accused Sunak of “raising taxes to the highest level in 70 years”. The debates seem irrelevant because the general public do not get a vote in this contest. viewers were reminded that the Tories are not called “the nasty party” for nothing. This has been a gift to the Labour Party. An attack ad prepared by the opposition, simply featuring quote after quote from the contenders in the debate, has attracted more than 3m views online.

Sunak has been the smoothest performer and was front-runner when it was MPs voting. He claims he is the only one who can beat Keir Starmer in a general election. Liz Truss has performed very poorly, admitting, “I might not be the slickest presenter on this stage”. She makes a virtue of ineptitude. “What you see is what you get.”  I see it and I don’t want it.

Despite Sunak’s superior performance, Truss is now the favourite. Her main thrust is a Gota-like mania for cutting taxes. Sunak also wants to cut, but not yet while inflation is raging. She wants   less tax and more spending at the same time. The OBR (Office of Budget Responsibility) warned that tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, saying that Britain’s finances were on an “unsustainable” long-term path; the debt burden could treble without tax rises to cover the mounting cost of an ageing population. Experts point out that the UK has among the lowest tax burdens in Europe. Growth is supposed to make up for lost taxes but where is it? Will she borrow money to cut taxes? As Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian: “Since every public service is now screaming for cash, for Truss to preach tax cuts is not just to preach severe austerity. It is to preach what she must know the Treasury and cabinet will not actually do.”

The OBR has estimated a 4% drop in UK growth since Brexit, which the FT calculates as £40bn in lost tax revenue every year. Just over half the electorate now think leaving the EU was a mistake. Sunak is being painted as a closet Remainer (or even socialist) despite the fact that he was espousing the Brexit cause in pamphlets when he was 16. Truss shows all the zealotry of a convert, but not so long ago, during the referendum campaign in 2016, she claimed Vote Leave was based on lies and Remain was going to win. This raises questions about her authenticity -are her other positions mere poses?

According to a Tory strategist, “The problem for Sunak is that he has the manner and the behaviour of a Remainer. He doesn’t have the revolutionary zeal of Truss.” Those who supported Remain in the Brexit referendum are backing Sunak, while Leavers overwhelmingly back Truss. This is despite the fact that Sunak campaigned for Leave while Truss was a Remainer.

Truss blames Labour for the country’s woes, ignoring the fact her party has been in power for 12 years. Sunak pledges to put the government on a “crisis footing” from day one if he becomes prime minister because Britain is facing a national emergency over the economy, NHS backlogs and illegal migration under the Tory watch. By the time of a 2024 general election, the Tories will have been in power for 14 years. There will be an overwhelming public mood of being sick of the sight of them. I got sick of them a long time ago.