As predicted this time last week, things have gotten very personal, very quickly indeed. Only Tom Tug in the debate last night really made any attempt to try to point out the circular nature of the firing squad. This was of course in the context of his own pitch as being a ‘clean start’ – which, irrespective of what happens in the next vote amongst MPs later today, already has more than a whiff of the ill-fated Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ slogan.
A large part of what has tipped this over into toxic warfare have been the televised debates themselves. Why any of the candidates agreed to do them is a bit baffling.
Whilst the public at large might rail against this, it’s a simple truth that until it is whittled down to the final two candidates (this week) and then the final winner (by 5th September), it’s only the MPs and Party members that really matter- in the sense it’s only they that have an actual vote in who becomes the next PM.
TV hustings also take an inordinate amount of time in preparation (not that Truss’ performance yesterday in reading her closing statement necessarily bore this out). Why haven’t the candidates instead spent their time more aggressively wooing Parliamentary colleagues?
These debates are also extraordinarily high risk – something Sunak and Truss have, belatedly realised: the next one (scheduled for Tuesday) has now been canned once they said they would not take part. How on earth did none of the advisers spot that each candidate being able ask another a question, as per last night, was going to going to be anything other than mutually assured carnage? The truth is that a lot of them are inexperienced and untested in either/both policy formation and/or campaigning. It did make for great TV though.
On the advisory front, I’ve been a little surprised by Penny’s lack of real detail on the fiscal/economic front. I would have expected her to have shown a bit more concrete thinking on the growth agenda. She’s being advised by Gerard Lyons, who at one stage was seen as a credible contender for Governor of Bank of England after Mark Carney.
I don’t wish the above to look as though I am jumping on the ‘get Penny bandwagon’. It’s just that having risen so spectacularly at the end of last week, the wheels seem to equally quickly be coming off the bus. I have to admit that I’m sceptical of over-hyping the use of ‘dark arts’. The problem with the furore about her views on trans’ rights and today’s story that she met the Muslim Council for Britain is that (a) she does seem to have previously held a position on self-identification that the Party just won’t wear, and (b) she did by her own tweet confirm she, well, met them.
So, the two “favourites” remain Rishi and Liz. There is no doubt at all that each camp will have been doing ‘due diligence’ on the other; the only question being when the material is deployed for maximum effect (read: damage).
Of course, there are some ‘true believers’ in each of the camps. But the reality is most of the Party are trying to game the least-worst option. In any number of Tory WhatsApp groups and exchanges over the weekend, the phrase ‘end of days’ is one appearing time and again. An ex-minister I spoke to over the weekend told me “Now we’ve gotten rid of Boris, none of it’s good. But it was a Hobson’s choice that he had to go”.
It was always going to be a Herculean task for the Conservatives to win a fifth term in 2024. To channel Boris, it’s a very real possibility the Party will make it a Sisyphean one by spending the summer tearing itself apart.