You will have read that this Conservative leadership election has been a vituperative horror show. And that its excessive length has fuelled voter anger and fed market uncertainty. The ghost of removing the vote from Party members in future contests is thus stirring in its unquiet grave.
I agreed with much of this take at the start, especially when the broadcasters egged all the candidates on to slag each other off, and they duly complied. So it was that ConservativeHome never declared for any of them. At best, the campaign was a damp squib and at worst self-destructive, I wrote. Nor was the case for either of the two surviving candidates compelling.
Liz Truss seemed to me to have the better medium-term plan. We can’t carry on as we have during last decade or so, with interest rates held at rates close to zero. But Sunak seemed to have the surer short-term one. What happens if your new policy doesn’t convince the markets, and interest rates end up rising to point of sustaining recession?
Eventually, I plumped for Sunak on the ground that, if other factors cancelled each other out, it might be best to give Tory MPs the candidate to whom they objected least. I wasn’t exactly swimming with the tide: at time, centre-right papers in Fleet Street were falling over each other to endorse Truss. And the polls suggested she would walk the contest (of which more later this week).
At about the same time, the hostile briefing lessened even if it didn’t actually stop; Team Truss lifted its eyes from the campaign and started looking ahead to government; Team Sunak intensified its gaze on and outreach to Party members. And as the hustings continued, the contest improved.
There isn’t much cheer around at the moment, so can I supply at least a little? Perhaps the Parliamentary rounds of the election took place too quickly and the membership stage too slowly. But it is no bad thing in itself for the Party to have had the time to hold hustings in Northern Ireland, say.
And a shorter contest would have given Truss less time to prepare for government. Kwasi Kwarteng’s Mail on Sunday article a fortnight ago was a sign that her team was thinking hard about the furlough-type package of help that is necessary. Her BBC interview on Sunday confirmed it.
At the risk of taking a complacent view of events, I suspect that the protracted nature of the contest has helped to give us a very fair result. At 83 per cent, the turnout was slightly down on the 87 per cent of 2019, perhaps reflecting some diehard loyalty to Boris Johnson.
Sunak provided the better debater in my view, dealing more nimbly with questions. He was so pumped up, right to the end of the campaign, as to make me wonder if Truss can find a way of plugging him in, this winter, as a new source of energy for the national grid.
The higher abstentions may have helped him a bit; so may more Party members delaying their vote than in 2019; so may his relative strength in “blue fade” southern seats where membership is high; so may his buoyancy in London, the one area in which he may have won a majority.
But if he was the better debater, she proved the better politician: from the start, Sunak, a relative newcomer to Government, was stuck as the candidate of the economic status quo; while Truss, a Cabinet member of some ten years’ standing, was able to present herself as the candidate of change.
Her campaign strategy to was to get out in front, not make any mistakes, and stay there – thus giving her the chance to focus on the task ahead. She made few enough and recovered fast enough for the plan to work. Fifty-seven per cent to 43 per cent is a faithful arithmetical representation of her emphatic start and Sunak’s fighting recovery.
Isaiah Berlin made use of the ancient Greek tale of the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one big thing. In this election, Sunak was forced to try many little things – lots of new policies – because of his central weakness as the candidate of more or the same. He was the fox.
Truss was no less ready to pump out press releases and float new policies. But like the hedgehog, she knew one big thing: economic policy must change. It won her a clear victory if not an emphatic one. More of that later this week, as I say, and more of it before then too.
If she is tomorrow’s business, Sunak is today’s, if only because we may not hear from him again in a while. He says that he will contest the next general election. Today, he scooped over two in five party member votes. Jeremy Hunt, the loser last time round, took only one in three.
Will Sunak stay loyal and quiet, or disloyal and noisy, or a mix and match of the two? Is his 43 per cent the platform for a future leadership campaign? What will this ultimate fast-tracker, who has met success in so much that he’s done, make of having failed?
It may for him be the equivalent of an out-of-body experience – strange beyond anything he’s ever encountered before. “You only get one shot so make it count / You might never get this moment again,” sing JLS. Are they right? “The clock is ticking down, it’s the final round / So tell me what it is that’s stopping you now.”