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23 July 2022

Rishi vs Liz is the excruciating summer spectacle we’ve all been waiting for

Is there anything more humiliating than a Tory leadership contest?

By Jonn Elledge

In 1987, Prince Edward decided to raise some money for charity. It’s a Royal Knockout, as it became known, involved the likes of Gary Lineker and Tom Jones running obstacle courses dressed as vegetables, and Prince Andrew pushing Meat Loaf into a moat. For a long time it was remembered as the most excruciating event in the history of the British establishment, and it was an act of utter cowardice on the part of Peter Morgan to exclude it from The Crown.

But those were the old days, of course, before the Tory party embarked upon its current habit of publicly tearing itself to shreds every third summer. This tradition, established in 2016 by David Cameron’s incompetence, is now into its third iteration, and two weeks in is already shaping up to be the most exciting yet, a veritable festival of own goals and misplaced confidence. Nobody has yet been pushed into a moat, but there are, somehow, six weeks remaining. Still time, lads.

The funniest bit of the campaign thus far has probably been the phase in which MPs so obscure that even their own colleagues would struggle to pick them out of a line-up – John Baron, Geoffrey Mitchell, Bill Wiggin; I’ve made one of those up, but I bet you’re not sure which – announced, in places where people actually might hear them, that they were taking soundings on running for leader. One of them, Rehman Chishti, actually did so, apparently not deterred by the fact he had not a single backer besides himself. He didn’t make the ballot, because even the Conservative Party’s rules aren’t that stupid.

Then again, perhaps it was the newly defeated Suella Braverman’s assertion that she was “absolutely blown away by the support that I got from lots of Members of Parliament, if not in their votes, then definitely in their hearts”. This, I feel, is a comment that’d be worthy of greater scrutiny, except for the very fact that she had said it meant she’d just ceased to be worth scrutinising.

[See also: Will Boris Johnson face a by-election over partygate?]

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It’s not all been japes: the early weeks of the campaign have also produced moments scarier than anything you’ll find in the Saw franchise, such as the 20 minutes or so in which Jacob Rees-Mogg genuinely seemed to be thinking about standing. They’ve produced moments of bathos so strong that they all but come with their own sad trombone noise – notably the way Ben Wallace, the stolid if un-thrilling Defence Secretary, who had been leading the polls of Tory members, took one look at the job and immediately ruled himself out.

Then there were the two debates, for which the Benny Hill music would seem more apt. Whoever wins the contest, Labour can rest assured it will have a sizeable stock of clips of senior Tories saying that they’re not up to the job, and also that the past 12 years of Tory government sucked.

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We even had a twist scarier and more mind-blowing than anything M Night Shyamalan has ever thought up, when an interviewer asked Grant Shapps his views on some culture war nonsense or another. He rolled his eyes and said that anybody who cared about that should vote for somebody else, and I realised with a bump that the internet marketing guy with a bevy of fake names was now the most serious candidate. He, predictably, got about as much support as Chishti.

Now the field has narrowed to just two, and the action shifts from the parliamentary tea rooms to that entirely sane and representative group of people, the membership of the Conservative Party. This is normally the point at which you’d expect the campaign to change in nature too, with the slapstick and pratfalls ending as the Tory papers pick their winner and do their bit to help them cosplay as prime minister. By all rights, you’d expect coverage on the left to shift, too, from pointing and laughing to harrumphing about how undemocratic it is that a tiny group of anonymous activists gets to pick the next PM.

This time, though, there may be much pointing and laughing still to come. Rishi Sunak, who in one debate talked at cringeworthy length about how proud he was of his wife’s family riches, is going to spend the next few weeks pottering around the country telling people he’ll do absolutely nothing to help with their gas bill, smiling all the while. Meanwhile Liz Truss – who, based on current polling, must now be considered the favourite – is a woman who seems to own five outfits, all of which Margaret Thatcher owned too, and who is widely considered to be “very odd”, even within the ranks of the parliamentary Conservative Party. The summer’s revelations about politicians and their egos may not yet be exhausted.

Whoever wins, the party may be in for a shock. The last two times it tried this, the result was a successful relaunch, a new government that magically disassociated itself from the old and won an election within a year. Had the party chosen Penny Mordaunt or Kemi Badenoch, figures as well-known as the fictional Stewart Lewis, it might have pulled that off again. Now the party will choose between the chancellor and the foreign secretary that propped up Boris Johnson long beyond the point of public support. The leadership contest will end with the summer; but the ritual humiliation of the Tory party may last much, much longer than that.

[See also: The Tory leadership contest pits Thatcherism against Reaganism]

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