The Grand National has begun, and the Tory stallions are off, leaping hedges, tripping each other up, and some even refusing to start (looking at you Priti and Dom). Welcome to yet another Tory Leadership contest, a great source of entertainment and drama, which also just so happens to decide the next Prime Minister! Must see viewing on the whole. First out of the blocks is ol’ reliable, Rishi Sunak. Rishi is way out in front among the MP vote, and is looking increasingly certain to make the final two run off. But the dynamic is strange, because current polling suggests Sunak is unlikely to beat any of his major rivals in the members vote, meaning that the favourite to become the next PM is whoever comes second at this stage.
Right now, that person looks like it is going to be Penny Mordaunt. Mordaunt has run a slick, serious, and well oiled campaign, and has won the plaudits of many of her colleagues, an impressive feat given that she has never been a front bench A-lister until now. Liz Truss is next in line, and she has done well at becoming the default choice for Johnson fans like Dorries and Rees-Mogg, but on the whole, she will be wondering how she is lagging behind Penny and not the other way round. Truss is an A-lister, and one who has been on manoeuvres for the last five years. Her problem is probably that Tory MPs recognise this is not just about who they want, but who they think the country wants. A true blue right winger like Truss might tickle the tummies of some members, but would she keep seats in the red wall with her promises of fiscal discipline? Similar problems face Kemi Badenoch, who has a strong fan base among conservatives, but is yet to show how her fixation on ‘culture war’ issues would translate out of the echo chamber.
Any leadership contest is built on momentum. MPs are fickle, and have a tendency to back who they think is in the ascendency. That is the biggest advantage Mordaunt has right now. To get into the final two, she really just needs to keep doing what she is doing, sound assured and Prime Ministerial, and for god sake don’t make any gaffes. For the others, the task is more complicated, and likely relies on back room deals and coalitions to get them into second place. Braverman’s decision today to back Truss is the first of these important backroom deals which could make things closer.
Once we get down to two, the contest will drag on throughout the summer, with the main theme likely to be Sunak trying to defend his record, while his opponent brags about the fresh new start they will bring. No doubt the media will dig up as much dirt as possible on each of the candidates and expect blue on blue attacks aplenty. All of this hurts the Tory brand in the short term and makes Starmer’s Labour seem uncharacteristically united. But once a new Prime Minister is in place, history tells us there will be a bounce the other way and the Conservative Party will unite around their new leader.
Process is painful in politics. Output is what really turns things around. So whoever, wins: if Penny stays the course, if Truss makes the deals and gets in front, or if Rishi manages to convince members he is their man, blue on blue debating will win no hearts and minds. The real task is what comes next: the cost of living crisis and inflation. Let’s hope that the winning candidate has a plan.