Rishy is dishy but Truss is the true-blue choice for British PM

Rishy is dishy but Truss is the true-blue choice for British PM

July 21, 2022

It is looking increasingly likely that Britain’s next prime minister will be Liz Truss. The foreign secretary, having edged out her rival Penny Mordaunt, will now face off against Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, in the final ballot.

While Sunak won hands down in the successive elimination votes among Tory MPs, the race now changes in an important way. The voters in the final round will not be the 358 professional politicians who narrowed the field in the elimination ballots; in the run-off the electoral college will be the 160,000 rank-and-file members of the Conservative Party. And with that, the political dynamic shifts fundamentally.

Rishi Sunak will face off against Liz Truss in the battle to replace Boris Johnson as Britain’s prime minister.Credit:Getty

The facts that Sunak performed so strongly among his colleagues, and that Truss struggled to get into the final round, are now completely irrelevant. One poll after another among the Tory grass roots shows Sunak to be lagging far behind Truss as their preference. (He was even further behind Mordaunt.) In a punishing series of hustings over the next few weeks, Sunak has to turn that around. I doubt he will be able to.

When it comes to a binary choice such as this, politics is very reductive. Politicians devote enormous effort to trying to define their opponents. Rivals are stereotyped. Words are weapons. A single phrase which piques the public’s attention can be career-ending.

Remember when John Howard described Kim Beazley as having “no ticker”? Did Malcolm Turnbull ever recover from Peta Credlin’s dismissal of him as “mister harbourside mansion”? Voters already suspected Beazley was indecisive. They certainly knew Turnbull was very wealthy. While neither of those attributes was a political asset, they were not a major problem either, until the lethally crafted verbal arrow distilled a nascent public misgiving and defined its target for ever after.

In Rishi Sunak’s case, the three lethal words are: “highest taxing chancellor”. Sunak may be brilliant, articulate and accomplished. He may have movie star looks, a thousand-watt smile and charm to burn. (His nickname is Dishy Rishi.) His life story may be an exemplary tale of aspiration and achievement: the son of Indian migrants from East Africa who rose to the very top of the political ladder.

Tell that to the typical Tory party branch member and you will get a basilisk stare. It will count for little against their utter loathing of big government and high taxes. And that is the thing with which Sunak is identified. It has become his unwilling brand. Expect Truss to repeat it with drumbeat regularity – a mantra and a malediction to strike alarm into every Tory heart.

Paradoxically, part of Sunak’s problem is that he seems just too perfect. A former Goldman Sachs analyst, he is the merchant banker’s dream of what a prime minister should be. (Where have we seen that before?) Elected as recently as 2015 in the constituency formerly held by William Hague, another brilliant young leader who missed the prize for which he once appeared destined, Sunak’s rise has all appeared so effortless. No doubt it wasn’t, but he is one of those politicians who seems to have risen without trace. As someone close to Liz Truss acidly said to me recently, “The reason Rishi has never lost a fight is because he’s never been in one.” He’s certainly got one on his hands now.

Party members like to see a bit of scar tissue on their leaders. They want a true believer, a member of the tribe. The stellar CV may be all very well, but at heart what they want is a warrior who fights for the cause. That is why Tony Abbott was always more popular with the Liberal Party faithful than Malcolm Turnbull. Having spent most of my life among Liberal Party branch members and much of the last four years mixing with the Tory rank and file, believe me: they are the same people. Exactly. Same demographic, same political values, same attitudes, same prejudices. They look the same, talk the same, even dress the same.

Liz Truss is a favourite among those people. She reaches them in a way that Rishi Sunak can’t. They can relate to her – familiar, friendly, likeable. Just like them. She is the girl next door. Not too glamorous. (It doesn’t help Sunak in the relatability stakes that he is married to a billionaire’s daughter.) Not quite as smart as Rishi, but perfectly smart enough. (They both did the same degree at Oxford, the BA in philosophy politics and economics, “PPE”. Sunak got a First, Truss an upper Second. Her best subject was econometrics.)

Much more important than academic credentials, Truss talks the Tories’ language. She knows which buttons to press. In particular, she talks about freedom: freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom from political correctness, freedom from big government, freedom from high taxes.

Her beliefs are hard-core and uncompromising. As foreign secretary, her language condemning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was the sharpest of any European foreign minister, reminiscent in its bluntness of the unwavering tones of Margaret Thatcher. Indeed, Truss is the member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet (and of Theresa May’s before him) who most consciously identifies with Thatcher’s brand of Tory neoliberalism. Thatcher’s memory may not be beloved among the public, but it is still revered by the Tory rank and file. Truss has also been the cabinet’s chief warrior against woke – and if there is one cause that stirs the blood of the Tory faithful as much as high taxes, it is the war on woke.

Although Truss is the preferred candidate of the Tory right, she is not a social conservative. (In the leadership campaign, she has been embarrassed by the revelation that she was once a republican.) Her position is essentially libertarian. For instance, she was a strong supporter of gay marriage. As international trade secretary, she was the great champion within cabinet of the Australia-UK free trade agreement. Once, when we were talking about her political beliefs, she compared the two issues (which are not often bracketed together). “Freedom is what I believe in, George. Freedom to love. Freedom to trade.” She even named one of her daughters Liberty.

This will be a contest between the brilliant, wealthy managerialist and the middle-class woman who “stands for something”. Goldman Sachs versus John Stuart Mill.

Rishi Sunak is the clever person’s choice. He’s no doubt the smartest person in the race, the most polished, the most glamorous. Every Oxford common room and every city boardroom will unite in willing him to succeed. But Liz Truss is the true believers’ favourite. She is defined by her values, and her values are their values. She is one of them. That’s why I think she will win.

Most Viewed in World

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article