It is the ceremonial opening of the culture war games. Rishi Sunak, late to start but making up ground, showed up in earnest at the end of July with what has become the first ritual, the kicking of the asylum seeker. Liz Truss pledged to send even more of them abroad. Sunak, unable to outdo Truss by pledging to fire them into outer space, said hear me out: cruise ships. How about we house asylum seekers in a sort of floating prison while they are processed?
This didn’t do the trick, and so Sunak effectively relaunched his campaign last week, pivoting towards a fight with “leftwing agitators” for trying to “take a bulldozer to our history, our traditions and our fundamental values”. He accused them of “rewriting the English language so we can’t even use words like ‘man’, ‘woman’ or ‘mother’ without being told we’re offending someone”. Then scrambling for more, announced that “vilifying the UK” should be an offence that should be referred to Prevent, as it amounts to extremism.
It’s worth noting here that Sunak started out as the “commonsense” candidate, who was going to be “honest” and not depend on “fairytales”. But then, presumably after actually getting to know the voting Tory membership, then having a Downfall-style meltdown at his team, decided that fewer facts and more empty posturing was the way to go. It is an embarrassingly desperate submission from someone who once insisted he had “zero interest in fighting a so-called culture war”. The unsaid part, presumably, is “but I’ll do it if I have to”.
And boy, does he have to. He’s trailing badly to Truss who was a culture warrior way before she ran for leadership of the party. She has a record and, most importantly, a personality that is more at ease with casual dissembling and delivering silly pabulum than Sunak, who always looks like the bully’s sidekick, puffed up when in company but pleading for mercy the moment he’s caught alone. He is way out of his comfort zone, which is why even his wording, when he tries to sound brawny, is always just a little bit off (last week, he said that lefties were trying to cancel “our” women). Truss has no such visible internal dissonance, instead she has now taken to randomly announcing that she “loves Britain” because “we are a great country”.
For those hoping that the culture war nonsense and pugnaciousness of the Brexit and Johnson era were over, the past few weeks have been truly stomach-sinking. There has been so much infantile talk about serious things. The triviality of the two candidates’ preoccupations sits in stark contrast to the grave state of the UK’s economic situation, which is worsening by the day.
But in fairness to Sunak and Truss, what else are they going to do? Sunak found out the hard way, and too late, that people want to be lied to. They want the fantasy, because waking up to real life is too painful. There is a reason that both candidates talk about their potential leadership as though the Conservatives are an opposition party: everything about modern Conservatism is about putting as much distance as possible between the party’s actions and their consequences. Whether it is Brexit, the housing crisis, or a lopsided economy where the super-rich float comfortably above the inflation battering everyone else, the Tories can’t fix what they themselves have broken. Cue a fake lineup of culprits – immigrants, Brussels, “lefty lawyers”, the European Court of Human Rights – on which to blame unemployment, declining living standards and “red tape” that fetters growth. This is a party on the run from reality.
The result is a sort of political Ponzi scheme, where bigger and bigger earnings are promised, until the investment is so large that the punters themselves dare not question why their dividends are dwindling. This is why culture war offerings are so prized, not because people care specifically about their details, which in polling always rank low on what people say they care about, but because they are a comfort blanket, a way to soothe voters into believing that their status, as natives bewildered by pronouns and alarmed by the modern world, is sacred and therefore somehow fortified against the really big, scary things: asset depreciation, a threadbare health service, the next recession.
In a way, culture war are only a gateway to a promised land where our best days are ahead of us. It is part of a general pitch that is not about addressing specific grievances but projecting a style, posture and tone. Truss is happy in this fact- and substance-free zone, pre-empting any threat of a reckoning by cheerfully producing numbers that don’t add up to kickstart the economy; dismissing Nicola Sturgeon as an attention seeker who needs to be ignored; evangelising for a Brexit that she herself campaigned against.
In a way, Johnson’s undoing wasn’t his lies, but what he lied about. Partygate did for him because it placed his supporters firmly outside an inner circle that he implicitly promised they were a part of. Truss, and lately Sunak, are learning that this protection racket politics is the only way forward, that a base created from lies can only be sustained by lies. It is too late to start telling a different story. Both Tory members and party leaders are trapped in a simulation that the former are too afraid to end and the latter too bankrupt to puncture.
In the 1997 science fiction film Gattaca, a purposeful, determined but weak man saves his much stronger, genetically gifted brother from drowning. When he is asked how he did it despite his physical limitations, he replies: “I never saved anything for the swim back.” This is where the Conservative party finds itself at the moment – but without the principle or purpose. The lies worked and carried them far out to sea. But the land on the horizon will never come into sight, and they have saved nothing for the journey back.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist