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This leadership campaign reveals the ideological narrowness of the Conservative Party

Editorial www.independent.co.uk 

A leadership election campaign ought to be a good chance for potential prime ministers to set out how they would deliver the kind of government that the people want. Instead, we have had a parade of leading lights offering fantasy tax cuts, and one candidate who seems to be running on a ticket to abolish unisex toilets.

What is the No 1 priority of the British people? It is the cost of living. And what do the candidates have to offer them? Unfunded tax cuts, mainly. Cuts to national insurance contributions, income tax, fuel duty, and even corporation tax. And none of them spelling out credible spending cuts to pay for these things, implying higher borrowing at a time when interest rates are rising, meaning it would pile on costs to be paid by future generations.

To his credit, Rishi Sunak, the recent chancellor, set the terms of the election by pre-emptively attacking “fairytales” about the economy. This does seem to have forced at least one candidate, Penny Mordaunt, to rein in the impossible promises and to agree that lower taxes are only prudent when the public finances are sustainable.

But the tone has been set by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is now backing Liz Truss, in condemning Mr Sunak as a “socialist” chancellor for belatedly doing the right thing and using the benefits system to protect vulnerable households from the rise in energy bills.

The overall impression is of a party that would prioritise tax cuts, which by definition help the better off (those who pay taxes), over broad-based help for people on low incomes.

What else do the British people care about? The National Health Service. The coronavirus backlogs and the dangerous delays in ambulance call-outs. And what do the Tory candidates have to say about that? The only candidate who seems to have taken the NHS issue seriously is the recent chancellor. His allies criticised Boris Johnson in the weekend press for failing to set up regular meetings, led by the prime minister, to oversee the backlog programme. This kind of Blairite public-service-reform focus is the only way to ensure that the full weight of the government machine is devoted to identifying the bottlenecks and clearing them.

The people’s priorities include the housing crisis. Only one candidate has mentioned it – Sajid Javid, though he has since stood down from the race. People are worried about crime. That has been the subject of familiar sloganising, but no new thinking. And people are also concerned about the arrival of small boats across the Channel, while being uneasy about the Rwanda scheme proposed by Priti Patel, the home secretary, as her main response to that problem. So far, all the candidates have backed the scheme – while the scheme itself has been suspended until the new prime minister takes office at the beginning of September.

The other huge issue with which the British people expect their leaders to engage is the climate emergency – coincidentally underlined by the current unusual heatwave. On this, the centre of gravity of the Conservative Party seems to be moving away from the people. Kemi Badenoch, the biggest surprise candidate of this race, described the target of net zero carbon as “economic disarmament”. While other candidates have not gone that far, the tone of the debate is all about “realism”, which is code for backsliding.

There is time for some of the candidates to prove us wrong, but the early stage of this contest has exposed the gulf between the Conservative Party’s deepest instincts and the people’s priorities. A leadership election ought to be a chance for a party to showcase its best talents. So far, it has shone an unforgiving light on the party’s true nature.