Having been sacked from cabinet in one of the most inexplicable political events of the past fortnight, Michael Gove’s remark on 20 July that some of the “core functions” of government had stopped working could be interpreted as a sideswipe at his old boss, the Prime Minister.
Yet having spent the past week asking voters across the country their views on the Tory leadership race, I can tell you that he got about as close to channelling the public mood as a politician ever gets.
In focus groups conducted in so-called Red Wall and Blue Wall areas, I heard tale after tale of frustration about how people felt the UK wasn’t working – or, as one participant put it, “everything’s too expensive and runs late”. Asked at the end of the groups for one word to describe Britain in 2022, most plumped for “shambles”, closely followed by “struggling” and “chaotic”.
That is the challenge that Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak face in their race to No 10. While Westminster has been consumed with debates about trans rights and the dark arts of vote-lending, the people I spoke to wanted to know what the next prime minister would do to help them through the winter – and they couldn’t understand why they weren’t hearing answers.
More damning still, in focus groups conducted after the televised leadership debates, people told me they were now more concerned about these unanswered questions than they had been before Boris Johnson announced his resignation earlier this month. If the leadership campaigns have been receiving the same feedback from voters that we have, it is little wonder they chose to scrap the third debate, which was scheduled for Sky News on Tuesday.
Nor were the voters we spoke to intrinsically opposed to the Conservative Party. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority recruited for our focus groups voted Tory in 2019, many for the first time. While in previous groups these audiences had been willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt over inflation and post-Covid teething problems, their patience has now worn thin.
They now tell us that the packages of support to help with the rising cost of living feel paltry. What’s more, if government intervention has been judged inadequate, government advice has gone down even worse. In Monday’s group in Oldham, the suggestion that people should buy more own-brand products was met with genuine scorn.
Dealing with voters who are angry about inflation, backlogs and delays isn’t the only challenge Sunak and Truss face. Talking to Conservative voters reveals quite how much the ghost of Johnson looms over the race. For those who fell out of love with the outgoing Prime Minister over partygate, the question is: why did it take MPs so long to get rid of him? For the not insignificant group who remain Johnson fans, and credit him with Brexit and the vaccine rollout, it’s: who else can do a better job?
On top of that, the leadership candidates seem so far unwilling to embrace the most popular elements of Johnson’s agenda, such as “levelling up” and tackling climate change – speaking to voters in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in 40°C heat certainly focused minds on the latter. Candidates pitching to voters who want a fresh start risk throwing the electoral baby out with the bath-water.
But it is not all bad news for the Conservatives. While it’s true neither candidate yet shows the magic that the pollster Frank Luntz found in a focus group looking at David Cameron during the 2005 Tory leadership election, nor does the Labour leader Keir Starmer. He still struggles to connect.
Voters who abandoned Labour in recent general elections are far from convinced they can trust his party with their vote again. This is not, yet, the run-up to the 1997 Labour landslide, and there is a window for Sunak or Truss to win back those who opted for the Conservatives in 2019 but are now wavering.
To do so, they will need to set out a proper plan to address the current “shambolic” aspects of Britain and tackle the cost of living. They also have to show that they “get it”.
Sunak will have to convince the public he isn’t too rich to understand their struggles. He will have to return to the Sunak of furlough who saved jobs and who some voters told us seemed at times more prime ministerial than the Prime Minister, rather than the man who wears £490 Prada shoes to a building site.
Truss has impressed in our focus groups with her strong stance supporting Ukraine against Russia, but now must demonstrate how her tax cut pledges will translate into money in people’s pockets. While she has begun to effectively parlay her less polished style into a strength, the next month will require her to open up more to voters.
If they succeed in these aims, either candidate could end up leading the Conservative Party to a modern historic fifth term in office. If they spend the next six weeks arguing among themselves, rather than making a pitch to the public, they will be in danger of hitting another historic milestone in 2024: the fourth Conservative leadership contest in the space of eight years.
Luke Tryl is UK director of More in Common. During the Tory leadership election so far, he has focus-grouped two Red Wall seats (Oldham East and Rother Valley) and two Blue Wall seats (Altrincham, and Uxbridge and South Ruislip).