There was a moment in the second Conservative leadership debate when Liz Truss seemed to overcome her awkward speaking style. That moment is long gone. At a conference centre today a few hundred yards from parliament, Tory MPs, peers, and staffers gathered to welcome their new leader. Many looked beleaguered after the eight-week contest. The great and good of the Conservative Party shuffled around sharing holiday anecdotes to a soundtrack of light classical guitar. A smiling Tom Tugendhat embraced people. Potential cabinet colleagues looked each other up and down on the sidelines. Thérèse Coffey strode down the aisle minutes before the start of proceedings.
The chair of the party, Andrew Stephenson, took to the stage to declare that “today marks the culmination of the Conservative leadership election”, eliciting a few faint whoops from the front of the crowd. The chairman of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady, perched behind Stephenson, gripping a giant blue folder containing the result as Stephenson welcomed the candidates into the room. Truss bounced out from backstage with a grin. Sunak shuffled behind with a grimace. He’d forgotten to smile, then remembered too late.
We knew Truss had won, but Brady was there to tell us by how much. Fifty seven per cent to Sunak’s 43 per cent. Not quite the landslide the polls predicted. Her speech seemed written for a thumping victory, not the smallest winning margin in a Tory leadership contest in over 20 years. The result meant that shoring up unity in her party was key. But that didn’t seem to be her priority. She didn’t shake Sunak’s hand after the announcement. Her tribute to him was generic. She positioned herself as Johnson’s acolyte and addressed “Boris” directly. He was, she said, a hero from “Kyiv to Carlisle” – an honest appraisal of Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland, but not a statement to bring together a party that had just defenestrated him.
A question hanging over Truss’s victory is how quickly she can pivot from addressing the Conservative Party membership to the public. Today, Truss didn’t speak to the electorate; she spoke to her fans. “I know our beliefs resonate with the British people,” she said confidently. By which she meant “freedom, the ability to control your own life [and] low taxes”, even if only 10 per cent of 2019 Tory voters view the latter as a priority. Levelling up wasn’t mentioned. She nodded to the energy crisis but kept it short. At one point, she said “I will deliver for the NHS”. There was silence; the crowd waited for details. But none came – so they applauded anyway.
[See also: What could Liz Truss’s cabinet look like?]