Jhe first round of the Tory leadership race didn’t settle anything, but that’s not how Jeremy Hunt or Nadhim Zahawi, both now eliminated, will see it. But it showed a party with no map, no compass and in an unknown location. Above all, it showed that one party lacked a shared analysis of why it is there, a week after Boris Johnson was ousted.
The results suggest that the next prime minister is likely to be either Rishi Sunak or Britain’s (and Conservative) third female leader. It remains to be determined whether Penny Mordaunt or Liz Truss will make it to the final stage, and whether Sunak will. It also looks likely that Suella Braverman and Tom Tugendhat will retire or be eliminated in the next round on Thursday.
But it is a wheel of fire, and the Conservative Party is as closely tied to it as King Lear. Normally in British politics – if there is still a ‘normally’ – the trauma of Johnson’s ousting would ensure at least an approximation of the internal debate in which the chastised party imperfectly engages its failings as a new leader emerges.
One of the most striking things about the conservative response to Johnson’s ousting is that it’s not happening at all. Hardly anyone called for reflection. And in the week since Johnson’s overthrow, there has been none. Instead, the Conservative Party is in headless chicken mode. Westminster is a place of intrigue and rumor. The country’s conservative party has lost patience and appears to be favoring a disengagement. Either way, it is a feast consumed with and by itself, and is almost blind to the true condition of the country.
The obsession takes different forms in Westminster and among Tory members. Among the deputies, the knives are out, the rivalries are renewed, the accounts are settled. It’s a snake pit and it’s going to get worse. Among the members, partly for this very reason, the mood is this: a blight on all their homes. A YouGov opinion poll shows them in a puritanical mood. They want a complete break from the Johnson years that would take away his ministers, his haters and his cheerleaders. Instead, the members want Mordaunt to take over.
They have in common to be introverted. There are several reasons. The first is that we are in the age of social media. Anything that can happen fast happens fast. There is no time for something so boring in slow motion as analysis and reflection, advice or planning. Instead, it’s every man for himself, hand in hand, vote for vote.
Another reason is that the Conservative party is particularly obsessed, to a degree not shared with other parties, with who’s up and who’s down. ConservativeHome’s high-profile ministerial popularity polls are both a symptom and a cause of viewing politics as an interpersonal battle. It helps make conservative politicians overtly ambitious in a way you don’t often see elsewhere. Look at Johnson – or Zahawi, Truss and Grant Shapps. Members may not like any of them, but they believe that leadership can be transformative. The YouGov poll’s vote for underdog Mordaunt epitomizes this.
A third reason is that conservative politics is not really about philosophy, politics or even interest representation. Instead, it’s all about attitudes. Brexit is both the cause and the consequence. Brexit is not so much a policy as an attitude. What matters to Brexiteers, six years later and hardly anyone seriously trying to reverse the decision (although the SNP wants to part with it), is leaving the European Union, not relations with she.
Thus, arguments about these relationships are transformed into arguments about doctrine. Lord Frost and Jacob Rees-Mogg are not interested in cooperating with the EU to solve the problems. They are interested in not cooperating with the EU. The problems and the solutions are entirely secondary. This underpins the potential power of the narrative of betrayal Johnson is trying to establish about his ousting.
This faith-based policy extends to other matters. Tax cuts are currently the main example. Leadership candidates are scrambling to promise cuts. They don’t do this because they can explain how tax cuts would solve Britain’s real economic and social problems (they can’t, although a few will try), but because they believe to tax cuts. Here again, the consequences are secondary to the ideology.
A more rational party would ask quite different questions. It could be questioned if and how the party can retain the cultural and class coalition that Johnson secured in 2016 and 2019. Brexit was at the heart of those victories, but the message of the June by-election defeats was that other things are more important now. .
A more rational party might try to trace the kind of strategy Theresa May and Nick Timothy attempted after 2016, emphasizing “right about management” and its bold argument, embodied in the 2017 manifesto, that government “can and should be a force for good”. In his totally solipsistic way, Johnson believed in some version of that. So, it seems, Sunak, Tugendhat, and possibly Mordaunt, albeit to varying degrees. But they are all too cautious to make it their platform.
Yet they could be rewarded if they did. It has become commonplace to assume that Conservative members are always more ideological and right-wing than the parliamentary party. Much of the battle between the deputies hinges on the assumption that this is the case, and boils down to the idea that Truss will win if she is in the bottom two.
Yet the evidence is inconclusive. The members picked Johnson over Hunt in 2019. But a previous member picked David Cameron over David Davis in 2005 by a similar margin. The members are not stupid. They can see the writing on the wall of the by-elections. They thought Johnson had to go. They are less attached to doctrinal purity than to keeping the party in power. They see Mordaunt as an intact, non-threatening means to that end. They are comfortable with it. Although it also shows that they are prone to magical thinking. Until this week, Mordaunt was less known to the general public than Stephen Crabb and less popular than Gavin Williamson.
However, his election would see MPs impose an inexperienced leader on the entire parliamentary party and the country. It would be a conservative earthquake, made in England. Normal conservative politics just got weirder.