He was the future, once. But now, defenestrated by the party he led to victory, Boris Johnson is preparing to depart Downing Street. The best that can be said about the contest to choose his successor is that it has been nothing if not entertaining. Rehman Chishti MP’s leadership campaign was a triumph in ‘Happening’ performance art—boldly rejecting societal norms by attracting, literally, zero supporters. Transport Minister Grant Shapps disappointed us all when he launched his fateful bid, but made up for it just three days later by dropping out of the race. Suella Braverman deserves an honourable mention for making it to the second round by pledging to cut welfare amid a cost-of-living crisis. In all, 11 candidates threw their names into the hat, and just two remain, chosen by the Conservative parliamentary party—a selectorate that decides whose names make it onto the ballot put before party members. And now we have those names, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. How foolish we were to reject you, Rehman Christi.
As the final two candidates were announced, one Tory MP was overheard saying “we’ve just lost the next election.” Whether Tory members elect Truss or Sunak—and they’ll almost certainly choose Truss—the unnamed MP will likely be vindicated. The problem is that neither prospective PM gets it. To win the next general election, they must first understand why they won the last one, and neither shows any signs of knowing. The Conservatives carved out and kept swathes of Labour territory in 2019, winning Darlington, a Labour seat since 1987, Workington, Labour since 1976, and Sedgefield, Labour since 1929. These voters broke with the party of their forefathers, not because they had undergone a Damascene conversion to Thatcherism—many of these voters detest Thatcher, even to this day—but because Boris Johnson promised to govern in their interests.
“I’ll get Brexit done!” Johnson promised workers at Sunderland-based Ferguson’s Transport, speaking on the stump, flanked by former Labour MP, Gisela Stuart. Again, accompanied by Stuart, and with Michael Gove in tow, the then campaigning PM pledged that Brexit would be an opportunity for more state aid, promising that his government would “back British businesses, by ensuring the public sector buys British … and we’ll back British industry by making sure we can intervene when great British businesses are struggling.” At his final Prime Minister’s Question Time, Holly Mumby-Croft, of the 2019 cohort of Red Wall Tory MPs, so-called because they won Labour’s heartland seats which form a ‘wall’ from the North of Wales, to the North East, thanked the outgoing premier for keeping “every one” of his promises on the steel industry, which the PM described as a “vital national industry.” The policy prospectus that won in 2019 was the embodiment of the slogan that won Brexit in 2016:Take back control—of our money, our borders, and our laws.
This vision of Britain was a soft national conservatism, the opposite of the Singapore-on-Thames fantasy favoured by most Tory MPs. Clearly, for every triumph, there was a tragedy. Onshore manufacturing paid big dividends in our vaccine procurement. Left-behind regions have benefited from newfound Brexit freedoms and state subsidies, none more than Teesside which boasts of a publicly owned airport and a freeport set to house 20,000 manufacturing jobs. On the flipside, immigration is out of control, and cabinet ministers like Truss got their way a few times too many, signing us up for the unfair Australia trade deal. Boris got distracted by COP 26 and climate change and neglected our own energy security in favour of useless heat pumps and electric cars. But the point is that there was a vision, and an attempt to see it through, and that attempt was felt keenly by the millions who were kept going by furlough and business grants through the pandemic—they were left behind no longer. Boris shifted to the Left on the economy, and to the Right on social issues, not because he wanted to, but because he had enough respect for the voters to meet them where they were.
The twin fires of pandemic and war should have smashed the laissez-faire delusions of the Tory Right. The supply-side dependencies of the West, and the weakness of unbridled free trade have never been so thoroughly exposed. But the priority for would-be PM Liz Truss is to cut taxes for the richest, and open our borders to capital and labour. She has set her sights on corporation taxes (the levy is set to rise to 25%), but a Truss-led government would scrap the increase, even though 69% of voters support it. She previously warned then-chancellor and now leadership rival Rishi Sunak against a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, a tax that 55% of the public supported. When she isn’t campaigning to put more money in the pockets of the wealthiest, she is cosplaying as Thatcher. She attracted widespread ridicule for arriving in Moscow wearing furs during a thaw. That’s a good metaphor for Truss: it doesn’t matter what the weather is, she’ll wear furs to Moscow because Thatcher did, and it doesn’t matter what the economic weather is, she’ll cut taxes because that’s what Thatcher did.
Sunak, who trails Truss in every poll of Tory members, also wants tax cuts—just not yet. He wants to press ahead with the rise in corporation tax, and has been endorsed by the influential Conservative Tees Valley mayor, Ben Houchen. That’s because it was Rishi who signed off on Boris’s spending commitments. Even though he calls himself a Thatcherite, he’s demonstrated an ability to compromise, which sets him above Liz Truss, but all but guarantees his defeat at her hands. So, while he might be better on the economy than his rival, he shares with her an apathy toward finishing what Boris started—asserting control over our money, our borders, and our laws.
Inflation is running at its highest in decades, our borders have been overrun, and the European Court of Human Rights is making a mockery of British democracy. A radical programme is needed to tackle a triple threat that could see Britain poorer than Poland in 12 years, and slide into second-world status thereafter. In place of that radical agenda, we have two candidates genuflecting to a geriatric party membership, trying to one-up each other as to who would be the best Thatcher tribute act, and the most convincing performer will win.
For those like me who want to see Starmer and his nouveau Communists locked out of power, we can only pray in vain that Sunak and Truss are playing a Machiavellian game that will conclude with a ‘reverse ferret.’ The key to victory in 2024 will not be a rejection of Johnsonism but doubling down on it. Booster rockets should be fixed under the engines of realignment to send it into warp speed. Globalism must be savagely dismissed in favour of nationalism. The UK must become more adversarial to European institutions. Police and courts must crack down harder on criminals. Deportations of illegals and criminals need to be taking off so fast and so frequently that they run the Heathrow tarmac thin. Money needs to be saved where it can, on foreign aid and diversity managers in the public sector, and redirected to strategic British industry. There are thousands of jobs there for the making if we can unlock the fracking of gas, the mining of minerals, and a project of public works that does justice to the promise of levelling up. For every middle-class liberal who defects, a working-class voter in the North will come over. The Tories’ only hope is in consolidating their position as the worker’s party. But under Truss or Sunak, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Mario Laghos is a political analyst, author, and the editor of Just Debate.