Opinion

Sunak and Truss care more about their small differences than the crises facing Britain

I have an issue with the phrase “zombie government”. Say what you like about the walking dead, they occasionally get their teeth into things. Faced with a scary array of daunting crises that demand immediate attention, we have a zero government. Boris Johnson has spent his last weeks in office joy-riding on an RAF jet, throwing boozy barbecues at Chequers for his cronies, gadding around the Med and seeking money-earning opportunities for his post-Downing Street life. The ministers left to hold the fort say as little as possible and do nothing. Social services should step in and take Britain away from the Conservatives on the grounds of neglect.

The excuse for the vacuum of decision-making is the prolonged leadership contest, which will be finally resolved next Monday when the party will reveal who it is imposing on Britain as our next prime minister. He – or, so the polls suggest, more likely she – will be faced with the severest crunch on living standards in a generation, key public services under unprecedented pressure, waves of industrial action by workers trying to keep up with ballooning inflation, in the middle of a war, and with the high likelihood of Britain soon sliding into a recession. One senior Tory uses the technical term “clusterfuck of nightmares” to describe what awaits his next leader.

An exceptional prime minister is needed to steer Britain through this perfect storm. Yet the contest for the job has not been a confidence-boosting and trust-inspiring showcase of the strength of character and the quality of the ideas of the rival candidates. The fight for Number 10 has been most notable for the bitter poison of their exchanges. Rishi Sunak and his people have attacked Liz Truss as a deranged fantasist peddling an immoral agenda that will throw millions into destitution and be an “electoral suicide note”. She and her outriders have called him “a stoat”, “a disgrace” who is “not fit for office” and “a socialist”, which is the Tory party’s c-word.

The viciousness of this vitriol is the narcissism of small differences. The battle has been ferociously personal, but it has been waged on a narrow strip of dogmatically rightwing ground. Both are market-loving, regulation-loathing, state-shrinking Tories and hard Brexiters, Mr Sunak by conviction, Ms Truss by career-convenient conversion. Both have treated the many challenges facing Britain as of less importance than conjuring up tax cuts that would most benefit the more affluent. They have quarrelled only about the timing. She wants tax cuts tomorrow; he would wait until there’s less risk of fuelling inflation already at double-digit levels. Both claim to be heirs of Margaret Thatcher, setting their party’s compass to an ersatz iteration of the ideology of someone who ceased to hold office more than 30 years ago.

This is not just testimony to an incorrigible beguilement by a mythologised version of the Iron Lady. It also speaks to the Tory party’s lurch to the right. At the outset of this contest, there were two candidates with a claim to represent the centrist, One Nation strand of Conservatism that was once the party’s dominant tradition. Jeremy Hunt, runner-up in the leadership contest three years ago, was knocked out in the first ballot of Tory MPs with a meagre 18 votes. Tom Tugendhat scored well with voters who saw him in TV debates, but not with his colleagues, who eliminated him in round three.

Many moderate Tory MPs thought it a waste of time backing a moderate candidate because only someone presenting as a Thatcherite rightwinger could win the run-off decided by the selectorate. The 160,000 or so Tory members are a tiny fraction of a small sliver of the country. Their views do not reflect those of the public; they are not even all that representative of Tory voters.

The leadership contest has failed to address many of the burning questions confronting Britain. We are in the grip of an intensifying climate crisis combined with a massive escalation in the cost of hydrocarbons. Now more than ever, Britain requires a strategy to meet its future needs through clean energy. Yet the candidates have used the hustings to moan about solar farms, pandering to the nimbyism and antagonism towards net zero that is prevalent among Tory members.

Essential public services are in a critical condition. Michael Gove, a senior member of the cabinet until very recently, has admitted that basic arms of government are just not working: “There are some core functions – giving you your passport, giving you your driving licence – which are simply, at the moment, not functioning.”

One in eight of the population in England is on a waiting list for NHS treatment. The queue is predicted to rise towards 10 million by 2024. Covid backlogs will be compounded by strikes and the unbudgeted impact of soaring electricity and fuel costs, which will fall particularly hard on areas such as education and health, which consume a lot of energy. In response to the gravity of these challenges, the candidates have responded with fatuities. Mr Sunak dusted down the hoary wheeze of fining people who fail to turn up for GP appointments, a suggestion that is risibly trivial in the face of what he acknowledges to be a “national emergency” in our health service. Ms Truss floated the notion of clawing in some cash by slashing the salaries of public sector staff working in less prosperous regions of the country, before retreating in the face of a furious backlash from Conservative MPs representing these areas.

The most immediately pressing challenge in the next prime minister’s bulging in-tray of horrors is the energy emergency. Without action to protect people from colossal increases in their bills, there is a very serious risk that we will see the unravelling of the fabric of society. Millions of citizens who believe in living by the rules and paying what they owe, the kind of people Conservative politicians always claim to revere, will be forced to choose between denying warmth and food to their families or defaulting on their bills.

There is a growing view among Conservative MPs that the handling of the energy crisis will define the fate of the new prime minister and determine their party’s prospects at the next election. Yet neither of the contenders has offered answers commensurate to the severity of the threat. Ms Truss has scoffed at “giving out handouts” and even used the word “bung” to dismiss the idea of more state support for households who face spiralling energy costs this winter. That language suggests an utter failure to comprehend the magnitude of this gathering storm. Even Truss-supporting Tory MPs have become alarmed. They are also bewildered, because it is clear that something big will have to be done. No government can expect to survive by sitting on its hands as millions of households, great numbers of businesses and swaths of the public sector are engulfed by a tsunami of crushingly higher energy bills. In recent days, people close to the foreign secretary have put it about that she will sanction mitigating measures once she’s inside Number 10, but they won’t say what they will amount to, leaving people to live with the fear that they will be left to face the tempest alone.

The contenders have also failed to say how they would restore integrity to our public life after the debaucheries of the Johnson premiership. This contest is happening because the outgoing prime minister was fired by his MPs for being unfit to hold the office he disgraced. Yet there has been no reckoning with his sleaze, rule-breaking and mendacities. Mr Sunak hasn’t wanted to go there because many Tory members remain entranced by the Johnson cult and have fallen for the fiction that he was a colossus brought down by treacherous colleagues. Ms Truss has calculated that her ambitions are best served by presenting herself as loyal towards “a fantastic prime minister” and propagating the myth that Mr Johnson was the victim of betrayal rather than the architect of his own downfall. Alarmingly for anyone who hoped that a change at Number 10 would usher in a more ethical regime, she has refused to commit to filling the position of standards invigilator left vacant since the last one quit in disgust with Mr Johnson. She has also voiced opposition to the parliamentary inquiry into whether the departing prime minister lied to the Commons about Partygate.

The favourite to take over at Number 10 appears to be more interested in shielding Boris Johnson than protecting Britons from the cascading crises that he will leave in his wake.

Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

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