Last week I blogged on the record of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and showed that very few of the manifesto promises that the Conservative party made to get elected with a majority of 80 seats in the 2019 general election have been fulfilled. This week I want to turn to the future and specifically consider the two remaining candidates to succeed Mr Johnson as leader of the Conservative party and therefore as the new Prime Minister from September 5th.
Following Mr Johnson’s resignation as leader of the Conservative party there very quickly emerged several candidates to succeed him. One highly positive factor was the diversity of those candidates both in race and gender. It is a fact that Conservative party values do appeal to the hard-working descendants of immigrants and also a fact that the Conservative party, while not particularly diverse in the number of female MPs, nevertheless has a good record of promoting some of them to high office. If Liz Truss does become leader of the Conservative party she will be the third lady in that role. To date of all the major parties only the Scottish National party has had a female leader, not counting acting leaders like Margaret Beckett.
However, one concern about the candidates that emerged was the relative lack of experience of high office on which I have commented before. It is a worrying trend that in the middle of the 19th century nearly all prime ministers had considerable cabinet experience before taking that role. However, of the last five Tony Blair and David Cameron had zero experience of cabinet before becoming Prime Minister while Gordon Brown, Theresa May and Boris Johnson just had the one cabinet job. Of the candidates who put themselves forward this time only three had cabinet experience. Of those Liz Truss it has to be said has the longest experience in cabinet as she’s been there for eight years in a variety of roles. But that in itself presents another concern. She appears to be in the lead at the present time and if that turns out to be the result we will have someone who, while she has experience, has also demonstrated an extraordinary facility for changing her mind on many critical issues throughout not only her recent political experience but indeed all of her political experience.
By her own account Ms Truss describes her parents as being left of the Labour Party and she herself became a Liberal Democrat member. While at Oxford University she was the president of the Liberal Democrat association there. In that capacity she attended the Liberal Democrat party conference where she made a speech in which she called for the abolition of the monarchy and the abolition of money! Both are quite extraordinary views for someone who now aspires to be Prime Minister of this great country. The then leader of the Liberal Democratic party, Paddy Ashdown, was thoroughly embarrassed by the whole affair. She then switched to the Conservative party and, it may be cynical to say but perhaps this was motivated more by the realisation that she aspired to high political office which she was unlikely to achieve with the Liberal Democrats.
She tried to win in a number of seats before finally getting a safe Conservative seat in Norfolk. However, the local party members tried to get rid of her when they discovered that she was having an affair with another Conservative MP Mark Field. She was able to hold on to her seat and quite early on was given her first role in government by David Cameron. She served under Mr Cameron, Mrs May and then Mr Johnson but now presents herself as the change candidate. Quite frankly although she’s been around a few years I don’t think she’s made that much of an impression on the public except as someone who is capable of being a figure of fun. in 2014 she made an extraordinary speech while Minister for Agriculture in which she made a passionate point about British cheese. She has quite often tried to recreate Margaret Thatcher’s publicity stunts even appearing in a tank. As Foreign Secretary she refused to recognise Russian sovereignty over Voronezh and Rostov, two cities that have been part of Russia for centuries.
What I see in Ms Truss is someone who is highly flexible, and I do not see someone who has consistently presented herself with clear values. The most recent example of that is of course the fact that she was a very strong campaigner for Remain in the 2016 referendum and made powerful arguments as to what damage leaving the European Union would do to the British economy. Of course, she now insists that she was wrong to have backed Remain. I know that everyone is entitled to change their minds but when she now says that the economic orthodoxy of the past 20 years has failed, and she now supports unfunded tax cuts we have to remember that she has been minister for 10 of those 20 years including two at the Treasury.
And if Ms Truss does intend as Prime Minister to reduce taxation without proper funding then that would be another breach of the manifesto promises that the Conservative party made. Just because we are having an election for a new leader of the Conservative party, that does not give that person the right to break the promises on which they were elected. She could only do that if she were to call an immediate general election and present a new manifesto and I have absolutely no doubt that she will not risk that in the current situation. She also claims to have solved the Northern Irish border problem by introducing a bill that repudiates the protocol negotiated by Mr Johnson, but that bill faces significant opposition both in the Lords and of course by the EU. So it would seem that a government led by Ms Truss would make a trade war with the EU even more likely. Her economic plans are ill thought through and the one economist who seems to be supporting her, Sir Patrick Minford, was the one who made statements about the huge benefits the economy would gain from Brexit. That may be true in the future but certainly not at the present time. Another claim that she likes to make is how many new trade deals she was able to negotiate as trade minister but actually most of these were not new but simply recuts of the existing deals with the other EU countries. There were one or two new deals; for example, the deal that she negotiated with Australia is particularly damaging to British farmers but as farming minister she claimed to champion the farmers.
In The Times this week there was a very interesting article by Clare Foges which sought to explain why Truss appeals and Ms Foges suggests that we have become addicted to spectacle and that Trump and Johnson were no flash in the pan. Increasingly the politicians who are winning through are those that grab the headlines with snappy soundbites that can be digested in a second. Make America Great Again! Take Back Control! Get Brexit Done! Build Back Better” and for those people who get their information on social media this simplicity and immediacy are everything. Miss Foges says it pays to steer clear of nuance and shave your message to its most eye-catching essentials, even if the process of simplification means you stray from the absolute truths. Ms Truss likes to present herself as somebody who can get things done but perhaps what’s really happening is that what she’s doing is getting the easy things done while the difficult are just moved further into the future. She even says that her tax cuts will decrease inflation ignoring all the evidence to the contrary but somehow Ms Foges argues that doesn’t seem to matter.
I’m not sure if this analysis is correct. The decision is going to be made by ballot only among paid-up Conservative party members. There are many people who question the validity of this approach and I think they have powerful arguments but at the moment those are the rules of the game and it will be decided that way. There are quite a number of opinion polls being bandied around but only two of them have actually been based on paid-up Conservative party members. The others talk about Conservative voters but that is not the same thing at all. There were 17 million people who voted for the Conservative party in 2019 and it is relatively easy therefore for the polling companies to find them but there are only 160,000 paid-up Conservative party members (that by the way is an estimate because no one actually knows the exact number) so it is therefore very much harder to find them and it is not a matter of public record. I also doubt whether the typical Tory party member fits the description made by Ms Foges, as they tend to be older and probably are not active on social media.
What about Rishi Sunak, the other candidate? Im my opinion Mr Sumac is a much more serious candidate. He has been a Conservative party member all his adult life. He is a highly intelligent man who made a fortune in the City. There are those people who think that because he is wealthy in his own right and is also married into a very rich family it means that he is not in touch with ordinary people. I take completely the opposite view and think it means he’s not in it for the money because he knows how to make far more money elsewhere whereas I’m afraid I think people like Mr Cameron and Mr Blair were in it for the money. They have since demonstrated that in a big way. I do have a concern about Mr Sunak in terms of some of the tax policies that he has introduced as Chancellor of the Exchequer but I also know that as Chancellor he faced probably the most difficult set of circumstances for a very long time because of Covid and he has had to increase public borrowing enormously in order to help people with their livelihoods. That cannot be done indefinitely as he has made quite clear. It has to be paid back in the future.
Ms Truss did not resign from Mr Johnson’s cabinet while Mr Sunak did and possibly that was the trigger of many more resignations which forced Mr Johnson to resign. Some people in the Conservative party may hold that against Mr Sunak. In my opinion Mr Johnson should not have been allowed to go on as long as he did as I’ve made clear in my previous blogs. It is clear that Liz Truss, while appearing to stay loyal to Mr Johnson by not resigning, had in fact been on manoeuvres for months holding her meetings with other Conservative MPs under the brand “Fizz with Liz.”
There is a very cutting front cover of the latest issue of Private Eye which under the headline “Tory Candidates Offer Fresh Start” shows pictures of both Ms Truss and Mr Sunak with the same speech bubble – “Only I can sort out the mess left by the government I was in.” Private Eye has a gift for satire, and I read it religiously every fortnight and have done so for decades and this particular point is quite a good one but we are where we are. The rules are the rules. If one is a member of the Conservative party one has a duty to choose one of the two candidates that have been put before you by Conservative party MPs. Those are the rules of the game, and they can’t be changed in the middle of the game. I resigned my membership of the Conservative party two years ago except that it seems the Conservative party has not registered that I have resigned and only last week I received a letter from the head of membership in Conservative headquarters saying, “Dear David you’re in the ballot.” This is quite a dilemma for me but I as I just made it clear if one is a member of the party one has a duty to vote based on your best understanding of what the Conservative party values are and who will make the best Prime Minister over the next few years which promise to be particularly challenging.