It is a good political maxim to ask of any decision: what would my opponent least want me to do? There are always other considerations but, in a competitive field, if your choice disconcerts the other side, you are doing something right. The Conservative Party might just be on the threshold of pleasing itself and the Labour Party at the same time.
The candidate who will please both sides is the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss. She pleases the Conservative Party because she is purveying a brand of fantasy economics in which tax cuts neither exacerbate inflation nor draw money away from the National Health Service. She pleases the Labour Party because there is no reason to suppose that either this policy prescription or Truss’s Stars in Their Eyes Margaret Thatcher tribute routine has any electoral appeal. If the senior people in Labour were to pick an opponent from among the viable candidates, Truss would have been their choice.
They might get lucky. The latest YouGov polling of Tory members suggests that Truss’s lead over the former chancellor Rishi Sunak is large, at 62 per cent as opposed to 38 per cent. Sunak is right up against it, especially as 40 per cent of them say he cannot be trusted. He has chosen to be the sensible candidate, the one who tells his electorate that the moon is, in fact, not made of green cheese. Truss not only thinks it probably is, she is famous for her brilliant cheese-related speeches. It doesn’t at the moment seem as if the members want to hear Sunak’s pessimism-laden heresy that Conservatives really ought to balance the books.
And yet it might be premature to write him off. When a survey by YouGov and the Times earlier this month asked which issue exercises Conservative members most, 56 per cent of them responded not with an issue at all but with an objective. They said they wanted the candidate who had the best chance of winning the next general election. It is hard to imagine Labour members ever being so blunt – it seems so vulgar, like discussing money. But the Tories want a winner and here is the glimmer of possibility that Sunak needs. If he can persuade his party that he has a better chance of winning an election than Truss – which he does, marginally – then he might yet close the gap.
It would be wise, too, for Sunak to stress that this is not a mere popularity contest. It is a job interview and the job in question is just about the toughest in the land. The Tory party has just burned through a couple of prime ministers – Theresa May and Boris Johnson – who coped very badly with the day-to-day demands. Of the two candidates still in the fight, Sunak is obviously and overwhelmingly the one who would cope better. It is, of course, a gift to the Labour Party to turf out one prime minister fined by the police for attending a lockdown party only to replace him with another. But Sunak is a serious candidate and Truss is not. He is also a man I would expect to behave with a certain decorum in office, which I doubt would be true for Truss.
For that reason – that he will be much better at the job – Labour should fear Sunak more than Truss. Which is not to say that they should be at all frightened of him, because they shouldn’t. Whoever takes over now does so at a moment of maximum difficulty. Inflation is approaching double digits and the UK is on a trajectory towards recession. The slow strangling of public services is now obvious to all; the waiting time for an ambulance tells us that things have stopped working. It is going to be hard to be in government, which is all the greater reason for choosing the better equipped of the two candidates.
Perhaps Tory members do want to indulge themselves. They are certainly not satisfied with the choice put before them. A quarter of them told YouGov they wanted Kemi Badenoch in the final two and a further fifth wanted Penny Mordaunt. Only 13 per cent wanted Truss and 11 per cent Sunak. Ten per cent said they didn’t want any of the original list of candidates.
These are the numbers of a party with a talent deficiency and no idea what it wants to do next. It would be a mistake, though, to conclude from these numbers that the members have been deprived of the right choice. Maybe Badenoch will prove to be a political star one day but there is no reason to suppose that she is ready to be prime minister in September. The same is true of Mordaunt. She was not, or at least she ought not to have been, the candidate Labour feared. On the contrary, she would have divided the parliamentary party and probably would have been a fiasco as prime minister, as most inexperienced people would. For my part, as someone who wants Labour back in power, I was hoping she would win.
The truth is that the Conservative Party does not have an option that Labour should fear. It was a terrible field, a truly dire set of possibilities. And it is worth a moment to reflect that there was one Tory that Labour feared. His own character defects have brought him down, as they were always bound to do, and he never beat anyone who was any good, but Boris Johnson was and is the only Tory who could hold together the 2019 coalition of voters and he has now gone. That’s the really good news.