Opinion

The Guardian view on the Tory leadership race: putting party before country

According to an Ipsos poll published this week, just over half the country now wants an early election to take place this year and only one in five people oppose the idea. That snapshot of public opinion represents the most telling verdict on the Tory leadership race, in which polls closed on Friday. This private affair, appearing at times to take place in a parallel reality, has served the nation badly at a time of acute crisis.

Once again, the choice of Britain’s next prime minister has been devolved to Conservative party loyalists willing to stump up a membership fee. This tiny selectorate of around 160,000 people is known to be mostly wealthy, older, white, propertied and male. But the Tory party has refused to disclose detailed demographic information to the media, on the grounds that the leadership election is a “private matter for members” and the Conservative party “is not a public body and … does not carry out public functions”.

That either Rishi Sunak or, much more probably, Liz Truss, will become prime minister on Monday suggests otherwise. The democratic deficit at the heart of this process, and the mere observer status accorded to the general public, will undercut the authority of Ms Truss or Mr Sunak from the outset.

The 55-day contest, conducted within the ideological parameters of the Tory right, has also been a drawn-out, damaging distraction. As the two contenders – knowing their audience – spent the summer trashing solar farms and outbidding each other over sending refugees to Rwanda, Britain’s European neighbours acted to protect citizens from the impact of the energy crisis. France has limited wholesale energy price rises to 4% for a year. Spain has imposed huge windfall taxes on energy firms and capped increases in gas prices. At the 12 members’ hustings, Ms Truss has instead talked of tax cuts, distanced herself from “handouts” and refused to outline a plan to deal with what is shaping up to be the biggest squeeze on living standards in a century.

Meanwhile, a zombie government, all but abandoned by a prime minister who went awol for weeks, left the country rudderless as it sailed towards the coming crisis. The leadership race furnished a pretext for a final abdication of responsibility by Boris Johnson. On the August morning that Ofgem announced that the energy price cap would almost triple on 1 October, relative to a year ago, no government minister was available for an interview.

From next week, the country at large will be allowed back into the discussion. It will no longer be possible to turn down interviews with the BBC, as Ms Truss did last week, on the grounds of being too busy. The “holiday from reality”, to adopt a phrase coined by Michael Gove in relation to Ms Truss, will be over.

The new prime minister may find this an unexpectedly bracing experience. Playing to the members’ gallery has shifted the Tory party to the right and towards the affirmation of free-market, small-state principles, at a time when a majority of the public appears to be moving in the opposite direction. In advocating radical forms of government intervention to deal with the energy crisis, Martin Lewis, Gordon Brown and Sir Keir Starmer were at one with the national mood. According to another poll published on Friday, two-thirds of the public would support a strike by nurses to protect their living standards as inflation soars.

A deeply unsatisfactory method of finding a successor to Mr Johnson has at last come to an end. Finally, real choices will have to be made and decisions taken. After a wasted summer, the next prime minister is likely to find that his or her honeymoon period is short indeed.

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