The race to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and therefore prime minister has quickly turned into a Rorschach test designed to discover all the different ways Britain’s conservatives are miserable.
In Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister, Conservative party members see a man who was disloyal to Johnson by leading the exodus of cabinet officials which ultimately led to Johnson’s downfall earlier this month. Worse, they see him as being disloyal to the very principles of what it means to be a Conservative. In Liz Truss, the incumbent foreign minister, they see a decaf Margaret Thatcher who will do anything to attain power.
The polls suggest either of them would lose the next general election.
Britain’s ruling party arrived at this sorry ultimatum when Boris Johnson inadvertently fired the starting gun on a new leadership race when he shot himself in the foot over the latest sexual assault scandal to dog the party. His mishandling gave Johnson’s Conservative colleagues the perfect excuse to tell him he had to go for decency’s sake, claiming their sudden loss of patience with him had nothing at all to do with damning recent election results, which showed that their party could be on its way to the opposition benches in Westminster if he was still in charge at the next general election.
Johnson became the latest victim of a time-honored Tory tradition: bringing down their own leader while in government. Now the United Kingdom will need a new prime minister. You might think such a vital democratic question would be answered by the British people at a general election, but no. Instead, for the third time since 2016, it will be down to an estimated 200,000 card-carrying members of the Conservative Party to decide who gets unchecked power to rule over the UK’s 67 million people.
Tory members of parliament (MPs) have already whittled down an initial field of nine potential leaders to just two. Sunak and Truss will now hit the road, campaigning around the country and taking part in TV debates before one is crowned leader on September 5.
The squabbling between the wider pool of candidates in the early debates was so bad that party elders canceled the final debate so that the rest of the country could not see the Tories tearing themselves apart and trashing their record in power live on TV. There are hopes—but no guarantees—that the head-to-head version will produce fewer fireworks.
The problem is, most Conservative lawmakers and party members are far from thrilled about the final two, or even the way the candidates were chosen.
“This particular contest has been nasty, vicious, personal, and nothing to do with policies,” says John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, a grassroots organization which aims to make the party more democratic. “Policies have been pushed aside so all of these personal ego-trips that the MPs are riding on have come to the fore. It’s an absolute disgrace. It’s a travesty of democracy.” The 80-year-old party veteran—who’s been a Tory member since 1964—says he wouldn’t vote for either Truss or Sunak. But he has no love lost for Johnson, whom Strafford considers “the worst Conservative leader of my lifetime.”
Just a few short months ago, mega-bucks Sunak was a national hate-figure. His support in the polls plummeted when it emerged that he had held a US green card—essentially declaring himself a permanent resident in America for tax reasons—even while in office as Britain’s finance minister and, er, raising everyone else’s taxes. It also came out that his wife came out that his wife—who has an estimated $835 million stake in her billionaire father’s company—claimed a special tax status for British residents whose permanent home is overseas.
And Truss is certainly not without its downsides. She’s seen in some parts of the party and the public as being insubstantial, and has racked up her own self-sabotaging embarrassments. In January, she had to admit spending an indefensible $600,000 of public money on a private jet trip to Australia. And she’s also been repeatedly called out for deliberately trying to emulate Tory hero Margaret Thatcher in an unseemly, years-long campaign of photo ops. (Mind you, images of Sunak have also generated shock—it’s hard to fathom how short he really is—5ft6—until you see him standing next to another human being.)
A video of Truss making a fist-bitingly cringeworthy speech at the 2014 party convention has also gone endlessly viral during the leadership campaign. “Truss knows nothing about economics,” one former Conservative minister told The Daily Beast. “She’s completely wacky and weird. I think she’d be totally out of her depth.”
Reports have also emerged in the British press accusing Truss of deliberately leaking documents to the press designed to embarrass her opponents during the leadership race. Some senior party figures are concerned that Truss might be adept at appealing to Tory members enough to win the race, but would then lead the Conservatives to ruin at the expected 2024 general election. “The question is whether Sunak can cut through and appeal enough to the members or whether—in her facile way—Truss can succeed, and we end up with an absolute five-star catastrophe,” one veteran lawmaker said. “It’s pretty grim. I think we’re heading for opposition at this rate.”
Incredibly, there’s even a contingent of Tory members and lawmakers who are opposed to both Truss and Sunak because they believe the best person to be the next Conservative leader and prime minister is Boris Johnson. “There’s almost been a coup d’etat in getting rid of Boris,” Conservative lawmaker Michael Fabricant tells The Daily Beast. The ardent Johnson supporter says he believes Brits are frustrated that the Conservative party have become “like lemmings that throw themselves off a cliff.” Why are we doing that instead of getting on with running the country? It’s completely self-indulgent.” Fabricant is backing Truss because of his dislike for Sunak, informed in part over what Fabricant calls “the loyalty issue”—meaning Sunak’s betrayal of Johnson.
If polls are to be believed, however, Sunak certainly appears to be less popular with Tory members than Truss, in part for his policies, which some claim are not conservative enough. His critics have attacked his record as Britain’s Chancellor, or finance minister. Truss likes to point out that on his watch, the tax burden is at its highest in 70 years. Government borrowing also exploded as economic activity collapsed during the COVID lockdowns. Worse still for Sunak’s Downing Street cred, he is the only leadership candidate who has refused to promise tax cuts if he becomes prime minister. Thank the lord he voted for Brexit in 2016—unlike Truss—otherwise he’d be totally at odds with Tory sentiment, the received wisdom goes. Although even on Brexit, Truss seems to be favored by hardcore eurosceptics since performing a total 180 on her former pro-European position.
“The person with the real grasp of politics who was the class act in some ways was Rishi,” says Lord Henry Bellingham, a former Conservative lawmaker who now sits in the House of Lords, speaking the morning after watching Sunak and Truss vie for support at a hustings for Conservative lords. “I think Rishi’s big problem is that he is the Chancellor presiding over quite significant tax increases. He explained to us exactly why he’s had to do it, and he’s also told us very clearly that he is instinctively a low-tax conservative, but he’s got some way to go to [prove] that.” Bellingham, who is going to vote for Truss, adds: “I think Liz will win it because she’s got more support in the party faithful. On the other hand, if those polls of the wider public indicate that Rishi’s more likely to win the election in the fight against [Labour leader Keir] Starmer, more likely to save the UK in terms of challenging [Scottish First Minister Nicola] Sturgeon, then I think that will be a factor.”
Even with Truss ahead for the moment, it’s still all to play for ahead of September’s result. It just remains to be seen how much damage the Conservative Party does to itself in the process of getting there. As one former minister puts it, the wider electorate isn’t all that impressed with the “cheap and shallow judgments” being used in the race about who is and is not a real Conservative, while the country is facing a series of truly monumental challenges.
“I mean, we’ve reached the point where people say: ‘For fuck’s sake, there are much bigger issues,'” the Tory insider says. “We’ve got a global commodities crisis, we’ve got the Ukrainian war, we’ve got social deprivation, and people can’t pay their bills. These narrow judgments are designed only to appeal to factions in the Conservative party and are potentially disastrous for the party in government.”