A new Conservative leader and British Prime Minister will be chosen on Monday. It will either be Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary.
Both were reduced by a field of eight by Tory MPs. The choice now belongs to the approximately 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. To the surprise of many, polls indicate Ms Truss is likely to win.
Its success has two causes. First of all, gaining buy-in does not require proposing policies but creating an atmosphere. Mr Sunak, as befits a former Chancellor, has created an atmosphere of understated realism. At the Exchequer, he failed to cut taxes that the Conservatives are seeking. Being chancellor and having to make difficult decisions is rarely a stepping stone to becoming a party leader.
Ms. Truss, on the other hand, created
The second reason for Ms. Truss’ success is Europe, which has divided the Conservative Party for almost 60 years. Today, however, almost all Tories want to keep the UK away from the Continent. We can therefore expect the most Eurosceptic candidate to win.
Unexpectedly, Euroscepticism is helping Ms Truss, not Mr Sunak, even though he was a Brexiteer in the referendum, avoiding warnings that it would damage his career, when she was Remainer.
Ms Truss, however, is now the repository of Brexiteer hopes. Most Brexit supporters believe the deal will quickly pay dividends. The aim is to liberate the economy and stimulate growth, using neoliberal policies such as reducing regulations, taxes and subsidies. These policies were successful in the long term in Australia and New Zealand during the 1970s. But in the short term they were costly, especially for farmers deprived of subsidies. The danger, as Reagan discovered, is that proponents of tax cuts do not necessarily favor the cuts to the public services needed to fund them. Many economists are skeptical of Ms Truss’ economic plan, although a minority support it.
All in all, the campaign was depressing. Neither candidate has admitted that whether taxes are cut or not, living standards will fall due to rising food and energy prices due to Covid and the war in Ukraine. The candidates did not specify how they would control rising inflation. Nor did they say what they would do to save Britain’s crumbling National Health Service, now just behind the economy in voters’ priorities.
These shortcomings could be due to the wide gap on political priorities between Conservative MPs and party members on the one hand, and the voting public on the other. Research has shown that only 5% of Conservative MPs and 22% of Conservative MPs agree that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor, a view shared by 72% of voters. Among voters who switched to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election, 81% believe big business takes advantage of ordinary people, a view shared by just 18% of Conservative MPs and 34% of party members. Conservative membership has grown from over a million in the mid-1970s to around 160,000 today. Moreover, this dwindling membership is not representative of the voters the Conservative Party must attract if it wants to stay in government, being 97% white, 71% male and aged 57 on average.
During the leadership race, candidates addressed the party. The new prime minister will have to talk to the people.
Mr. Bogdanor is Professor of Government at King’s College London and author of “Britain and Europe in a Troubled World”.
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