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Conservative Leadership Contest: Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and the Battle for ‘True’ Thatcherism
The resignation of Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservatives, following months of alliterative P-related scandals (Paterson, partygate and Pincher), has triggered the Party’s second leadership election in three years.
The various changing accounts of the Chris Pincher affair – in which Johnson claimed to have had no prior knowledge of the sexual assault allegations made against the former Deputy Chief Whip – were proven untrue by Simon McDonald, the former Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. McDonald revealed he had told Johnson that Pincher, then a Foreign Office minister, had been subjected to such allegations during Johnson’s time as Foreign Secretary.
Only days before, Children’s Minister Will Quince told breakfast news that the Prime Minister had personally reassured him he did not know of the allegations when he appointed Pincher to the Whips Office.
Quince became one of over 50 government ministers who resigned and forced Johnson’s resignation. Over the course of two days, a historic number of ministers or cabinet ministers either resigned or made it clear to Johnson that he should leave office. Perhaps the most dramatic moment came when the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nadhim Zahawi, used his Treasury notepaper for what might have been the first time to write a note to the Prime Minister, imploring him to stand down.
A variety of Conservative MPs – from current and former holders of the Great Offices of State to MPs who had no previous ministerial experience – put themselves forward for the role in the days that followed.
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss had long been seen as the favourites to replace Johnson (as the PSA Conservatism Studies Group previously wrote on this blog), but the insurgency of Penny Mordaunt, the former Defence Secretary, and Kemi Badenoch, made the contest unpredictable.
Betting markets and ConHome members’ surveys both indicated that Mordaunt and Badenoch were, at different times, the members’ favourite.
In the end, though, and perhaps with the assistance of some tactical voting, MPs selected Sunak and Truss to go forward to the members’ ballot – and the two will spend the summer appearing at party hustings across the country.
If party members elect Sunak, the UK will have its first ethnic minority Prime Minister. Should they opt for Truss, she will become the country’s third female premier – and the first female party leader to have been directly elected in a ballot of party members.
What has been most striking about these hustings so far is the way in which both candidates seem to be tussling over who is the rightful heir to Margaret Thatcher.
Whilst Johnson’s premiership (like Theresa May’s before it and, in different ways, David Cameron’s before that) marked a shift away from Thatcherism, with its focus on levelling up and state intervention in ‘left behind’ areas, Sunak and Truss seem to wish to reinstate elements of it, although their interpretations of what Thatcherism is differ.
Sunak’s reluctance to cut taxes, emphasis on sound money and focus on the need to tackle inflation have earned him the backing of bone fide Thatcherites, including one of the most ardent of them all, the former Chancellor Nigel Lawson. Sunak’s cautionary economic plan and proposal for tax cuts later down the line has echoes of Lawson’s approach. Lowering taxation only once the stormy economic waters have calmed is what Lawson did in the 1980s, with the biggest tax cuts towards the end of the decade, and what Sunak advocates now.
Truss’ Thatcherite credentials are perhaps less subtle. Her economic platform prioritises tax cuts on day one and shrinking the size of the state (though she quickly u-turned on her proposals to vary civil servants’ pay by region).
More notably, though, she has consciously cast herself as a modern day Thatcher in her appearance and photo shoots: the outfit Truss wore in the first televised debate mirrored Thatcher’s 1979 general election broadcast outfit; the fur coat and hat that Truss wore in Moscow, as Thatcher did on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1987; and of course the image of Truss in a tank in Estonia had obvious parallels with Thatcher’s West Germany trip in 1986.
Of course, the two candidates’ attempts to cast themselves as Thatcher serves an important purpose. Both know that their success in this contest will be decided not by the general public among which Thatcher is controversial, but by the Conservative Party’s c.200,000 members – over which Thatcher still has a considerable hold.
Not only does the choosing of a Prime Minister by a small number of party members raise some fundamental constitutional questions, it also demonstrates how both Truss and Sunak have to walk a fine line between appealing to ‘true blue’ party members now, with a pitch that might not resonate with the general public later down the line.
Like Mrs Thatcher, the next Prime Minister will have to deal with inflation, disaffected unions and Russian aggression. But unlike the Iron Lady, Truss or Sunak will take the reins after the Conservatives have already been in power for 12 years. It is difficult to argue, as well, that either has the personal or political substance that Thatcher did, which they will need if they wish to navigate these very testing upcoming challenges, renew their party, and attempt to lead it to another general election victory.
This blog was written by Dr. Antony Mullen, Univerity of Bolton and Dr. Sam Blaxland, UCL. Antony oen of the co-convenors of the PSA Conservatism Studies specialist group and Sam is their Research and Impact Officer.