Here’s a prediction I make without any pleasure, but with absolute confidence: whoever wins the Conservative leadership contest is destined to become Britain’s fourth consecutive failed prime minister after David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson (or fifth if you include Gordon Brown).
I say that because neither Liz Truss nor Rishi Sunak will enter No 10 with a robust, coherent and well-prepared programme for government as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – Britain’s last successful prime ministers – did in 1979 and 1997, after several years in opposition.
They will instead be shackled by the fantastical promises and scattershot ideas that they are having to offer the predominantly elderly, southern, male, white, affluent right-wing Tory party members who will choose the winner.
Those vacuous pledges have little to do with the pressing needs of the country in this turbulent age, and everything to do with the narrow preoccupations of that tiny selectorate. Which is the deepest tax-cutter? Which is the true heir of Thatcher? Which is the most ardent Brexiteer? Which will take the toughest stand against China and desperate asylum seekers?
That lack of a plausible strategy or genuine sense of mission would be a major drawback at the best of times, but these are the worst of times. Truss or Sunak will inherit a country in a dire state. She or he will need urgently to tackle a looming recession, inflation heading for double digits, plunging living standards, collapsing public services, an NHS that is close to breaking point, gathering industrial strife and much else besides.
Those multiple and simultaneous crises would test the ablest, wisest and most inspirational politician, let alone these two.
[See also: Rishi Sunak’s rightwards dash has destroyed what reputation he had left]
Truss or Sunak will face another huge disadvantage. They will take office with little public support. She or he will be the third consecutive prime minister imposed on a sullen country by an increasingly discredited Conservative Party. They will not have won a popular mandate through a general election. They can expect no public acclaim beyond the obvious fact that they are not the widely reviled Johnson. They are both tarnished by their lengthy membership of his government. YouGov shows just 26 per cent of voters like Sunak, and 21 per cent Truss, and neither is likely to enjoy much in the way of a political bounce or honeymoon.
They can expect little help from their own party either. Neither was backed by much more than a third of the Conservatives’ 357 MPs. They and their supporters have since been engaged in vicious personal and ideological warfare, the wounds from which will not quickly heal. Moreover the parliamentary party still includes a sizeable number of irate Johnson loyalists who believe their man was deposed by a treacherous coup, want him back and have little interest in helping his successor.
To all those problems let me add yet one more. Despite their faintly ridiculous efforts to pretend they came from humble backgrounds, I doubt either Truss or Sunak can hold on to those Red Wall voters who gave Johnson his “stonking” general election victory in 2019 but feel increasingly betrayed by the Conservatives. Neither can begin to match Johnson’s charisma or campaigning skills. Nor will they enjoy the huge advantage of fighting the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn that Johnson had in 2019.
I can see only one way that Truss or Sunak could conceivably win the next general election. That is to try and win back the millions of moderate, centrist voters who have abandoned the Conservatives in disgust over the past six years, but remain unconvinced by Keir Starmer; the sort of politically disenfranchised voters who feel the Tory party has been hijacked by fanatical right-wingers, and have consequently voted in huge numbers for the Liberal Democrats in the recent Tiverton and Honiton, North Shropshire, and Chesham and Amersham by-elections.
To do that, the new prime minister would have no choice but to abruptly abandon Johnson’s singular brand of blow-torch politics and swiftly readopt traditional Tory values.
That would mean a return to fiscal rectitude, jettisoning the cakeist notion that we can simultaneously spend more and tax less. It would mean making peace with the EU, not picking endless fights to inflame the Brexit base. It would mean seeking to reunite the country, not dividing it through ugly culture wars. It would mean bringing talented Remainers back into government, and sidelining toxic figures such as Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries.
It would mean renewed respect for international and domestic law, and for ethical standards in public life, the supremacy of parliament and the honours system. It would mean working with, not against, the civil service. It would mean ending the demonisation of the BBC, the judiciary, the Electoral Commission and other institutions whose independence Johnson so resented.
It would mean jettisoning legislation to restrict the right to vote and protest, and the cruel, unworkable and unlawful plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. It would mean a genuine and urgent commitment to tackling climate change. It would mean an end to tawdry, headline-grabbing gimmicks such as privatising Channel 4, building a new royal yacht and restoring imperial measurements.
It would mean excluding the disgraced outgoing prime minister from any future role in government, admitting past errors and acknowledging the costs of Brexit (not least the present chaos at Dover) instead of pretending it’s been an unalloyed triumph. It would mean a return to common sense and pragmatism, honesty and decency, tolerance and compassion.
Truss would never do any of the above, of course. Sunak just might, gambling on a sudden surge in public support to protect himself against the wrath of the zealots who presently control the Conservative Party. Sadly, if the latest polls are to be believed, it looks unlikely he will get the chance.
[See also: Liz Truss dismisses Nicola Sturgeon at her peril]