How, in 2022, have we ended up with such a terrible set of options for prime minister? The last three candidates for the highest job in the land are likely to be Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss. The quality of the candidates tells us a lot abut the state of the Conservative Party after 12 years in power.
The main lesson is not intellectual. The left is apt to look at Conservative ideological confusion and declare it to be hypocrisy or intellectual emptiness. And it is true that the contortions from Osborne austerity to Johnson profligacy have been incoherent. But so what? The Conservative Party is not a philosophy seminar. It is a gathering of people with somewhat differing inclinations and the shared purpose of gaining political power. The emphasis is elsewhere, given the circumstances before it. The Conservative Party remains a political organism of remarkable agility.
So the intellectual range on display is smaller than we might hope for. The egregious Suella Braverman was prepared to pander to every half-witted Tory instinct on human rights, and every one of the 27 MPs who thought she should be made prime minister ought to be disqualified from speaking in public again. Kemi Badenoch is the voice of the permanently aggrieved, inventing cultural enemies where they do not exist, fearlessly slaying straw men. Quite what Michael Gove is doing in her camp is anyone’s guess. Tom Tugendhat says nothing very much but with military bearing. Liz Truss is orthodox tax-cutting and small-state Toryism allied to social illiberalism, which calls to mind the heady brew of Mrs Thatcher. Never mind that Truss hardly means a word of it and that her right-wing posture is largely phony – she is probably trapped by her own caricature now. Rishi Sunak is, in effect, the heir to David Cameron, the tribune of tight public spending and sound money.
Not that he would associate himself with Cameron, as such. The airbrushing of a man who was prime minister just six years ago shows how lightly the Tory party travels. Labour Party debates are still conducted, depressingly, according to the standard (or insult) of Blairism, calling up a ghost from 15 years past. How shallow Cameron’s impact on the Conservative Party was by comparison. Like all projects within Toryism, it was meant as a short-term fix.
And yet, for all that these have been 12 chaotic years in which we will soon get our fourth prime minister, the Conservative Party has managed never to relinquish power. The coalition with the Liberal Democrats from 2010 to 2015 has now taken on a sort of roseate glow, a short period of comparative calm. Eventually, the negative impact of George Osborne’s misguided austerity project started to show. Theresa May lost her majority in 2017 in part because people had tired of cuts to public services. And since then – well, the less said the better.
That chaos, though, is the key to the poor field we have now. The rapidity with which ministers come and go has always been a weakness in British administration; even more so when the governing party is in an almost perpetual state of crisis. All prime ministers arrive in power with an entourage that tends to get cleared away when the principal departs – and four prime ministers in 12 years is bound to mean that ministers are discarded at an unhealthy rate. A party with no intellectual anchor has accelerated politics. The biggest cause of acceleration for the Tories was, of course, the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, which fractured the party and made personae non gratae out of many people who regarded leaving the European Union as an error.
Four cycles of prime ministerial favouritism and the loyalty test of Brexit has left the well of political talent dry. In a more conventional political cycle many of those who came to prominence in 2010 would still be around, lending weight and experience to any future government. Politicians thought callow in 2010 would have acquired gravitas. But this has not happened. Think of all the people who have been chewed up and spat out by the Tory politics since 2010, most of them more talented than the bedraggled rabble that sits in the current cabinet. David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Rory Stewart, Dominic Grieve, Justine Greening, David Lidington, Nick Boles, Margot James, Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston, David Gauke. If you get rid of that lot you end up with Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary, Suella Braverman as Attorney-General and Nadine Dorries at the Department for Culture.
The Conservative Party has been left free to indulge itself. It has essentially given up on allowing the electorate to settle its affairs. The last Tory leader to become prime minister at an election and then lose the job at an election was Ted Heath in 1974. Since then, the Conservative party has supplied five prime ministers, soon to be six. Two of them – Thatcher and Cameron – became prime minister by winning an election, but were kicked out before they could lose one. John Major became prime minister in a palace revolution, and May and Johnson both gained and lost power at the behest of the party. Now a new novice will be given a turn. At least until the electorate finally has its say.