July 11, 2022 - 7:30am

After the fall of Boris Johnson, the Conservative leadership election is a chance for the party to move on. However, the contest is off to a chaotic start.

There are eleven campaigns already up-and-running — which, by coincidence, is equal to the number of teams in Wacky Races. Of course, it would be wrong to compare a ludicrous cast of two-dimensional characters to the fondly-remembered cartoon series, but at this point a comical pile-up is a racing certainty.

With so many to choose from, it’s hard to pick the weirdest moment of the weekend. However, the honour has to go to Jeremy Hunt — who, apropos of nothing, announced that Esther McVey would be his Deputy Prime Minister. What on Earth was he thinking? Presumably, the idea is that a Right-wing running mate would balance the ticket.

But he’s forgotten his own party’s history. In the 1997 leadership contest, Ken Clarke teamed up with John Redwood — an unholy alliance that was not well-received (William Hague was elected instead). Another precedent that seems to have slipped Hunt’s mind is that McVey stood in the 2019 leadership contest and came tenth out of ten candidates.

Of course, it’s not just Hunt making desperate appeals to the Tory Right. Most of them are promising tax cuts — seemingly unable to distinguish between an ordinary recession and the inflationary recession heading our way. But even if their fellow MPs are economically illiterate, the auction of tax cut promises isn’t a winning tactic. 

For a start, the tax cutters are drowning each other out. Away from the madding crowd, Rishi Sunak has been able to stand out as the fiscally responsible candidate. Then there’s the need for endorsements. If all that notional money is allocated to cutting taxes, then a candidate can’t promise infrastructure spending for the Red Wall — or a boost to the defence budget. The latter may prove vital to securing the support of Ben Wallace. The Defence Secretary isn’t running, but he’s wildly popular with the party membership — and his endorsement could decide a tight race. 

Another big beast not running this time is Michael Gove. On Sunday evening he endorsed Kemi Badenoch — capping off a remarkable weekend for the Saffron Walden MP. Her op-ed for The Times on Saturday was the most coherent and interesting thing I’ve seen from any of the candidates so far — and received praise from across the Conservative ideological spectrum. Her Sunday Telegraph interview was less impressive, featuring some half-baked policy musings that she needs to develop rapidly.

But then that’s the mistake that the candidates keep on making — pandering to the Right in a party that isn’t nearly so Right-wing as they think. Furthermore, the contest that really matters is the next general election. Even if the Parliamentary party can’t see ahead to 2024, I suspect that the Conservative membership will. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.