Truss v Sunak: a sorry spectacle of playground bragging from a party without a purpose | Rafael Behr

Truss v Sunak: a sorry spectacle of playground bragging from a party without a purpose

Rafael Behr

When it comes to the most pressing issues for our nation, all this divided Tory party can do is repress, displace and deny

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss

The two candidates in the race to succeed Boris Johnson represent two parties, although the distinction between them is not acknowledged. Rishi Sunak is the candidate of conservatism as it was until 2019, when Theresa May’s government was still trying to reconcile Brexit ideology with the demands of economic and diplomatic reality. Liz Truss appeals to the successor movement, the “Boris” party, which resolved the tension by denying its existence.

That conflict is buried in a contest that purports to be about other things. Tax policy is the measurable difference between the two candidates and so it dominated Monday night’s TV debate. The lines are by now well-rehearsed: Truss wants immediate cuts; Sunak wants to wait. He says fiscal loosening will stoke inflation; she says it will unleash growth. He frets that lost revenues will mean less money for the NHS; she would borrow the shortfall.

But those positions are proxies for different notions of what it now means to be a Conservative. Sunak embraced the label of “bean counter” when Truss used it as a pejorative. He is styling himself as a frugal Tory of the old school. Truss accused him of sounding like Gordon Brown, wedded to outmoded Treasury rules. She would “take on the orthodoxy” – an appeal to the Johnsonian maverick spirit.

Beyond budget specifics, the battle consists of lunges and postures that are meant to project strength and determination. Sunak would get tough on China. Truss boasts of her toughness on Putin. (Both would be toughest of all on refugees seeking sanctuary in Britain, but there was no mention of that in this debate.)

There is no ballast of gravitas to level out the swagger, so it comes across as playground bragging, or the overcompensating neurosis of careerist nerds, fast-tracked too young into high-ranking ministerial offices. They might have steely cores, but the needy ways they try to prove it show only their plastic shells.

The pettiness of the whole spectacle is exacerbated by vicious skirmishing between unidentified “friends” of the candidates, belittling the other side’s record in government and casting aspersions on their integrity. Team Sunak has poured scorn on Truss’s claims to have endured a hardscrabble education in a tough comprehensive. Truss’s allies hit back at her rival’s posh grooming as an alumnus of Winchester school and his gilded employment by Goldman Sachs.

The former chancellor’s wealth has also been the focus of attacks by the Daily Mail. One feature, cited in the TV debate, dwelled on Sunak’s taste for pricey bespoke tailoring and fancy footwear. He steered the topic into a parable of Conservative immigrant aspiration.

But it is a bruise that is still tender from earlier in the year when it was revealed that Sunak’s wife used non-domicile status to minimise her tax bill. That was not a good look for any chancellor, and his peevish reaction misread the national mood. Around the same time, it emerged that he had a green card, bestowing a right to settle in the US in case his ambitions to conquer British politics should falter.

It isn’t news that Tory cabinet ministers are rich. The party members who will elect a new leader are not traditionally hostile to the idea that moneyed people have nice stuff.

But Sunak’s political vulnerability on this front is more subtle. The attack is more insidious. The implied offence is not being rich, but belonging to an elite – and not just any elite: a global financial elite; an intercontinental first-class lounge elite; a Davos-man elite; a remainer elite – a “citizen of nowhere”, to borrow a poisonous phrase from Theresa May.

The fact that Sunak voted to leave the EU is irrelevant to this insinuation, just as it matters not an iota that Truss campaigned for remain. (He was eager to remind the audience of both facts at every opportunity.) As my colleague Jonathan Freedland noted last week, Brexit is a mood, not a policy now, and Truss has captured it to the exclusion of her rival.

That was the unsubtle subtext when she dismissed Sunak’s warnings about interest rate rises as “project fear” – the leaver’s favourite jibe against pro-EU scaremongering. But it is Truss’s refusal to speak ill of Johnson that most eloquently describes the schism in the party. Pressed on the reasons for the incumbent prime minister’s resignation, she voiced almost as much sorrow about it as he plainly feels for himself.

That is a tactical appeal to those Johnson loyalists who see Sunak’s resignation as the most treacherous of all the ministerial blows that felled their champion. In Eurosceptic theology, the spirit of Brexit is incarnate in the leader who got it done. Sunak’s betrayal of the man is also a sin against the faith.

By extension, what is left of the old Tory party, the one that made a virtue of managerial pragmatism, is backing the assassin. Sunak appealed directly to that faction by lamenting Truss’s departure from prudence as a misguided promise that “we can have our cake and eat it” – Johnson’s favourite boosterish idiom.

But the kernel of these disputes is shrouded in euphemism, which renders the whole contest absurd. It is suffused with the spirit of Brexit culture wars and yet Brexit itself is not up for debate. Not the terms of the deal, its economic impact or the wisdom of the Northern Ireland protocol bill that threatens to trigger a trade war with Brussels as the cost of living crisis bites deeper. (On that, the conversation skated glibly over causes and remedies.)

There was only one direct question on the practical consequences of leaving the EU in Monday’s discussion. The candidates were asked whether the current tailbacks of traffic at Kentish ports are a consequence of Brexit. The correct answer is yes. They both said no.

It is self-evidently one of the most pressing issues for the nation and the Tories can only engage with it by way of emotional repression, displacement and denial.

“We are having a really serious discussion,” Truss said at one point, which is the sort of thing that only needs asserting when the opposite is true. It was not a real debate. This is not a safe way to choose a prime minister. It is not a healthy way to run a country.

  • Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist