“Ms Truss is a remarkable politician in that she seems to have been gifted with the soaring oratorical skills of John Major, the mastery of the Commons displayed by Iain Duncan Smith, the common touch of David Cameron, the barnstorming, election-winning panache of Theresa May, as well as Mr Johnson’s inability to sift economic fantasy from reality.”
At his final Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson dropped a particularly heavy hint to the cheering benches behind him – some of whom actually cannot wait to be rid of him – that his favoured candidate in the leadership election is Liz Truss.
Perhaps exaggerating the facts and over-simplifying complex arguments, the prime minister declared that his successor should go for tax cuts and deregulation. He advised them, and by extension the Tory membership, that they shouldn’t take too much notice of the Treasury: “If we had always listened to the Treasury we’d never have built the M25 or the Channel Tunnel.”
Given that Rishi Sunak was in charge of the Treasury until recently, and wants to put beating inflation before tax cuts, it doesn’t take Alan Turing-level skills to decipher that remark. After all, Mr Johnson’s spin doctors have already briefed that Mr Sunak is a “treacherous bastard”, while a loyal cabinet ally warned: “Rishi will get everything he deserves for leading the charge in bringing down the prime minister.”
Mr Johnson’s valedictory “hasta la vista, baby” suggests that he has not quite ruled himself out of a return to frontline politics, or even No 10 one day. However, even he cannot be cynical enough to want to choose Ms Truss simply to make himself and his record look good.
But it may be that Mr Johnson’s resentment towards Mr Sunak, who owed so much of his precipitous rise to high office to Mr Johnson, is such that it has clouded his judgement about who will be best to lead the nation.
For the next few weeks, Mr Johnson will be in the background, intervening only occasionally, surreptitiously and in coded ways to assist Ms Truss, and deprive Mr Sunak of the reward for perceived treachery. No doubt the sympathetic Johnson loyalists in the party, those who treated him more like a US president or even a cult leader, will take the hint and vote for Ms Truss.
But Mr Johnson is not as wildly popular among the grassroots as he was despite it still sometimes being assumed by his parliamentary cheerleaders. In other words, Mr Johnson may not be able to stop Mr Sunak with as unsuitable a weapon as the bollard-like Ms Truss, to borrow a phrase.
Ms Truss is a remarkable politician in that she seems to have been gifted with the soaring oratorical skills of John Major, the mastery of the Commons displayed by Iain Duncan Smith, the common touch of David Cameron, the barnstorming, election-winning panache of Theresa May, as well as Mr Johnson’s inability to sift economic fantasy from reality.
Unless the economy takes a sudden turn for the better, she will lead the Conservatives to a terrible election defeat next time around. She threatens a trade war with Europe, unfunded tax cuts to stoke inflation, and an absurd plan to try and reschedule Britain’s debt, as if it were Argentina or Zimbabwe pleading with the IMF. Debt is still debt, and it will need to be serviced, whatever the maturity, and even if it is perpetual (as war debts used to be).
Indeed, Ms Truss’s ignorance of economics has been one of the most surprising and disturbing aspects of this leadership election. The best she can hope for is a pre-election boom engineered through generous spending on key Tory target seats and demographics, and she finds a way of preventing the Bank of England from raising interest rates to control inflation.
Whatever happens, the Tory civil war seems set to intensify. What began as a simple wish to replace Mr Johnson with a more honest figure has spiralled into soul-searching about tax cuts, transgender rights, culture wars and, inevitably, Brexit. It has become more bitterly personal than any previous leadership election, with the possible exception of when Michael Gove declared Mr Johnson unfit for leadership in 2016.
It is perfectly possible that Mr Sunak will win the MPs’ ballot but lose the membership vote by a slim margin (say 48 per cent to 52 per cent to Ms Truss) and refuse to serve in a Truss cabinet. Facing oblivion, the Tory party is guaranteed to panic again and again, and display that feature that voters can never forgive – division. With Brexit “done” and Boris gone, they have nothing to rally around. Lacklustre Liz is not the answer to their problems.