The first round in the Conservative leadership contest settled nothing, though that is not how Jeremy Hunt or Nadhim Zahawi, both now eliminated, will see it. But it showed a party without a map, without a compass and in an unfamiliar place. Above all, it showed a party lacking a shared analysis of why it is where it is, a week after the ousting of Boris Johnson.
The results suggest that the next prime minister is likely to be either Rishi Sunak or Britain’s (and the Tory party’s) third female leader. It remains to be determined whether Penny Mordaunt or Liz Truss will go forward to the final stage, and whether Sunak will do so. It also looks likely that Suella Braverman and Tom Tugendhat will withdraw or be eliminated in the next round on Thursday.
But it is a wheel of fire, and the Tory party is bound upon it as tightly as King Lear. Normally in British politics – if there is any longer a “normally” – the trauma of Johnson’s ousting would ensure at least an approximation of internal debate in which the chastened party would engage imperfectly with its failures while a new leader emerges.
One of the most striking things about the Conservative response to the ousting of Johnson is that this is not happening at all. Almost no one has called for reflection. And in the week since Johnson was toppled, there has been none. Instead, the Tory party is in full headless chicken mode. Westminster is a place of intrigue and rumour. The Tory party in the country has lost patience and seems to favour a clearout. Either way, this is a party consumed with and by itself, and is almost blind to the true condition of the country.
The obsession is taking different forms at Westminster and among the Tory membership. Among MPs, the knives are out, rivalries are being renewed, scores settled. It is a snake pit and it will get worse. Among the members, partly for that very reason, the mood is: a plague on all their houses. A YouGov opinion poll shows them in puritanical mood. They want a total break from the Johnson years that would carry off his ministers, his enemies and his cheerleaders alike. Instead, the members want Mordaunt to take over.
They have in common that they are both inward-looking. There are many reasons. One is that this is the social media age. Everything that can happen fast is happening fast. There is no time for anything as boringly slow motion as analysis and reflection, consulting or planning. Instead, it’s everyone for themselves, hand to hand, vote for vote.
Another reason is that the Tory party is peculiarly obsessed, to a degree not shared with the other parties, with who is up and who is down. ConservativeHome’s much reported ministerial popularity surveys are both a symptom and a cause of seeing politics as an interpersonal battle. It helps make Tory politicians overtly ambitious in ways you do not often see elsewhere. Look at Johnson – or Zahawi, Truss and Grant Shapps. The members may not like any of them, but they believe leadership can be transformative. The YouGov poll vote for the outsider Mordaunt embodies this.
A third reason is that Tory politics is not really about philosophy, policy or even the representation of interests. Instead, it is overwhelmingly about attitudes. Brexit is both cause and consequence of this. Brexit is not so much a policy as an attitude. What matters to Brexiteers, six years on and with almost no one seriously attempting to reverse the decision (though the SNP wants to secede from it), is to have left the European Union, not relations with it.
So arguments about those relations are turned into arguments about doctrine. Lord Frost and Jacob Rees-Mogg are not interested in cooperating with the EU to solve problems. They are interested in not cooperating with the EU. The problems and solutions are entirely secondary. This underlies the potential power of the betrayal narrative that Johnson is attempting to establish about his ousting.
This faith-based politics extends to other issues. Tax cuts are currently the chief example. The leadership candidates are falling over one another to promise cuts. They are not doing this because they can explain how tax cuts would solve Britain’s actual economic and social problems (they can’t, though a few will try), but because they believe in tax cuts. The consequences here are again secondary to the ideology.
A more rational party would ask itself wholly different questions. It might ask whether and how the party can hold on to the cultural and class coalition that Johnson achieved in 2016 and 2019. Brexit was at the heart of those victories, but the message of the June byelection defeats was that other things are more important now.
A more rational party might try to map out the kind of strategy that Theresa May and Nick Timothy attempted after 2016, with its focus on the “just about managing” and its bold argument, embodied in the 2017 manifesto, that government “can and should be a force for good”. In his wholly solipsistic way, Johnson believed in a version of this. So, it seems, do Sunak, Tugendhat and perhaps Mordaunt, though in different degrees. But they are all too cautious to make it their platform.
Yet they might be rewarded if they did. It has become a commonplace to assume that the Tory membership is always more ideological and rightwing than the parliamentary party. Much of the battle among MPs is predicated on the assumption that this is the case, and boils down to the view that Truss will win if she is in the final two.
Yet the evidence is not conclusive. The membership chose Johnson over Hunt in 2019. But an earlier membership chose David Cameron over David Davis in 2005 by a similar margin. The members are not idiots. They can see the writing on the wall from the byelections. They thought Johnson had to go. They are less committed to doctrinal purity than to keeping the party in power. They see Mordaunt as an untainted and unthreatening means to that end. They are comfortable with her. Though this also shows that they are prone to magical thinking. Until this week, Mordaunt was less well known to the general public than Stephen Crabb and less popular than Gavin Williamson.
Nevertheless, her election would see the members imposing an untested leader on the entire parliamentary party and on the country. This would be a Tory earthquake, made in England. Normal Tory politics just got even stranger.