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Truss and Sunak’s lurch to the right jeopardises 2019 coalition

The voters that gave the Tories their majority want levelling up, not tax cuts.

By Freddie Hayward

During last night’s hustings for the Conservative leadership contest, Liz Truss said that “people voted Conservative in 2019 because they wanted something new, they didn’t want more of the same”.

The Conservatives’ victory in the general election that year was primarily founded on three things: Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity, “getting Brexit done” and more money for public services. Corbyn is now an independent MP. The UK has left the EU. And Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are fighting over who will better fund the NHS, put more police officers on the streets and tackle regional inequality.

Hang on… Scrap that. Truss and Sunak are playing tax cut bingo. Both the former chancellor and the Foreign Secretary have spent the campaign promising to cut taxes rather than to fulfil the promises made to voters in 2019. Indeed, there’s a growing divide between their policies and the policies that won the Conservatives their biggest majority since 1983.

The most popular policy among Conservative voters is levelling up. According to new polling from Public First for Onward, a centre-right Conservative think tank, 80 per cent of Tory voters want the new leader to commit to reducing regional inequality. Only 9 per cent want the policy reversed. But neither candidate has made it central to their campaign. Last night Truss, the frontrunner, even announced plans for a regional pay system for public sector workers, which would reduce the pay of those outside of London.

Shifting from levelling up to tax cuts isn’t attractive to many 2019 Conservative voters. A recent poll from Techne found that only 10 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters think tax cuts should be the priority for the new prime minister, although 21 per cent of Tory party members do. A planned rise in corporation tax, which Sunak supports but Truss opposes, was very popular with the public when it was announced, Conservative and Labour voters alike.

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The rise in national debt and the tax burden during the pandemic helps to explain the differences with 2019. As does the fact Sunak and Truss hold different beliefs to Boris Johnson on public spending. The structure of the leadership election also matters. As a rule, party members and MPs have more extreme views than the wider electorate. That makes sense: less ideological people generally don’t join political parties. Sunak and Truss had to win over Tory MPs and then party members. As a consequence, they’ve had to pitch themselves to a more right-wing electorate than they would in a general election.

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The risk of that strategy for Sunak and Truss is that they win the battle but lose the war. By lurching to the right on taxes to win over Tory members they jeopardise the coalition of voters Johnson built in 2019. Truss is right that the 2019 result was a vote for change, but neither she nor Sunak is offering it.

[See also: Tory leadership candidates – don’t go back on levelling up]

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.