The Tory leadership contest is a three-way battle. Rishi Sunak campaigns against Liz Truss and Liz Truss campaigns against gravity. The former chancellor’s pitch is to renew a party weighed down by 12 years in power. The foreign secretary pretends that those years are a burden on some other party. She offers the fantasy of regime change.
It is a difference of demeanour more than policy. Sunak performs in the earnest managerial style of a minister holding a line in a broadcast interview. Truss’s vibe is an opposition MP holding forth at a party conference fringe event. The foreign secretary doesn’t even pretend to be in the business of serious government, which, to be fair, she isn’t. She is playing by Boris Johnson’s rules in a game that was never won with seriousness.
According to that playbook, a leader can announce a half-baked policy one day and, on meeting with a backlash, rescind it the day after. On Monday, Truss proposed a “war on Whitehall waste”. Then Tory MPs who read the small print complained that the proposal meant docking the wages of teachers and nurses outside London. By Tuesday, Truss was denying she had ever had such a policy.
Johnsonism is the technique of saying things to woo one audience without caring how they will be heard farther afield. At a hustings event on Monday, Truss was applauded for saying that her approach to Nicola Sturgeon would be to ignore her as “an attention-seeker”. The implication is that Sturgeon’s demands for a referendum are a tantrum and that the UK prime minister is the adult in the relationship. No sympathy with Scottish nationalism is needed to see how damaging that is for the unionist cause. It stirs the exact grievance Sturgeon needs to whip up support for a second referendum in the absence of momentum for independence. In case anyone thought things would ever change at Westminster, here is the same old English Tory arrogance as far as the eye can see.
It is hard to get any other perspective when the mechanism for choosing a prime minister is a competition to satisfy the ideological fetishes of Conservative activists. It is harder still when the failings of the outgoing leader – estrangement from competence; allergy to truth – are forgotten so quickly that the favourite to succeed him is the one who mourns his departure.
Truss’s frontrunner status is not certain. But it is supported by opinion polls and by a rush of opportunist MPs to endorse the candidate they think will win. If that bet pays off, the foreign secretary’s anti-gravity platform will be the reason. She denounces a failing economy and pledges a rupture from prevailing orthodoxy as if those things were properties of a government other than the one in which she serves. She seems to think Britain has been badly ruled for as long as anyone can remember, but also that Johnson has been a fine prime minister; maybe not beyond reproach, but not to be reproached by her.
It would be a preposterous plan, defying all political logic, but for the recent precedent of a Tory prime minister taking over from another Tory prime minister and successfully pretending they had nothing in common. When Johnson replaced Theresa May, he cast his predecessor as a relic of the old politics. She was the last governor of Remainia – a country that was abolished by the Brexit revolution. May’s time in office was written off along with the previous six years when David Cameron had been prime minister.
That was possible because Brexit was an epoch-defining upheaval. There was a seismic scale to Johnson’s landslide election victory that gave credence to his claim that a new era had begun. Then the pandemic hit and whatever had once felt normal was swept into an even remoter past.
Those conditions won’t pertain in September 2022. The part of Brexit that is done has failed and there is no mass clamour for the parts that the Tory party wants to do harder – purging legacy EU regulations; fighting Brussels over Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, prices are rising, real wages are shrinking and the health service is falling over. The prime minister will be new to the job but not to the country. The government will feel old. Gravity can be suspended during a leadership contest. It rarely stays absent for long in Downing Street.
From the point of view of the Tory membership there is an obvious appeal in the pretence that none of what has come before is relevant to what can come next. Sunak is hardly assailing his party with hard truths, but there is something about his teetotal candidacy that feels like a spoilsport hand over the party’s glass while Truss uncorks another bottle.
It must also be hard for voters in this particular contest to remember that they are just a tiny portion of the actual electorate. They all know it in theory, but in practice, when the Conservatives have been in power for so long, when they were in power more often than not in the 20th century, when they have already dominated this century despite Labour getting a head start, it is easy to imagine that, as a rule, British politics is English and English politics is Tory.
Even in those febrile, convulsive years after the 2016 referendum, when the country was turned upside down by a supposedly anti-establishment revolution, the most establishment party on earth somehow landed back in government. With that record of revisionist chutzpah it is easy to see why Truss thinks she can wipe the slate clean. Declare Year One of the Trussian Age.
And maybe she can. The same complacency that has some Tories thinking they are entitled to perpetual power infects the opposition with a neurotic fear that this is true. I detect a shift in Labour’s mood – from glee at the prospect of taking on the gaffe-prone crackpot Truss to wariness. Gaffes are only a liability if the candidate is embarrassed by them. Cracks can give the pot a valuable ring of authenticity in an election campaign.
There is still every reason to think that gravity will win the undeclared next round of the Tory leadership contest. But, such is the perverse state of British politics that Truss may be the one who is better placed to face that challenger by flatly refusing to accept it exists.
Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist