After a couple of weeks’ scramble in the Tory leadership race, Tory MPs today selected Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to fight it out for the members’ vote over the next six weeks.
Sunak was always likely to be one of them, given his support in the Commons, but he has also been seen as the one with most to do to win members’ favour. It was soon clear that his most likely challenger would be a woman, and it has also been expected that whichever woman that was would ultimately be the winner.
As a showcase it was a useful exercise for Kemi Badenoch, who was probably not well known to Tory members. But by being strident in all the right places she has laid down a marker for the next leadership election.
Penny Mordaunt has been talked up by Tory MPs for some time, and for much of the contest it seemed likely that she might pip Truss for the second place. That uncertainty was still real as the contestants went into the final ballot.
By hook or by crook the Tory establishment determined it had to be Truss
But Truss, MP for South West Norfolk, has been acclaimed by what these days is the Tory establishment, the ERG and their ideologically-pure friends. So as MPs prepared for the final vote there would probably have been blood spilled by the whips, perhaps more than metaphorically, in order to drag Truss over the line.
Mordaunt’s victory over Truss would not be permitted. Truss, ex-Liberal Democrat and enthusiastic EU Remainer, has transmogrified into the Leaver’s Leaver and had to make the cut whatever the costs.
It remains to be seen what those costs will be to Mordaunt. She has proved effective and might expect recognition in the next cabinet. She will certainly lick her wounds and almost certainly be justified in claiming dirty tricks. The bitterness will not go away and revenge will be sought, hot or cold. Meanwhile Truss will now go through whatever process her party feels will best win the members’ vote.
Two different audiences, wanting to hear competing messages
For an outsider, it is assumed that this devotion to the idea of a woman leader must be part of Thatcher’s legacy, and certainly Truss appears to think so. She has taken up dressing as a woman 30 years her senior, with all the prissy bows and impedimenta of Thatcher. Certainly not for her MPs; for the members looking in.
Will that be enough to gain the crown? She is the one who has the contest to lose, now it has to go to members. Sunak therefore has to act out of character and do something bloody to bring down that image. Meanwhile, we know of old the characters who are backing Truss, and Mordaunt and her backers will probably do whatever it takes to puncture the Truss campaign.
There have been those who claimed this contest could tear the Tory party apart. They could be right, though unlike Labour it has always been averse to taking those steps which might make for an impediment to power.
If Sunak is to win, he has to take dramatic steps and the next six weeks may have to be disastrous for his party in order for him to win. If everybody goes on holiday and forgets about the contest, it will be Truss.