July 29, 2022 - 2:00pm

In his final PMQs as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson advised his successor to “check the rear view mirror”. Given that he then concluded with the words “Hasta la vista, baby” —  the specific threat that he appeared to have in mind is the return of… Boris Johnson: “I’ll be back,” he may as well have said.

Even if he himself recedes into political history, the policy programme of his government is still with us — backed-up by the non-expired mandate of a commanding Commons majority. So whether it’s Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss, the next Prime Minister has a manifesto to implement. 

Strange, then, that we’ve heard so little about it during the leadership race. The candidates — and especially the final two — seem more interested in claiming the mantle of Margaret Thatcher than talking about the policies that got them elected in 2019. 

But what do Conservative voters — or people who might vote Conservative — think about the main planks of the current government’s agenda? Both Sunak and Truss would be well-advised to study a major Public First poll for the Onward think tank. Here’s a key chart:

As you can see, it shows the level of voter support for keeping various government policies. The grey bars refer to all voters — and the coloured bars to definite (dark blue), wavering (light blue) and possible (red) Conservative voters. 

Among those who will, or may, vote Tory, the two most popular policies are “Britain leaving the EU” and the “commitment to level-up growth and opportunity in all parts of the United Kingdom.” Perhaps surprisingly, levelling-up is even more popular than Brexit. Yet while the candidates have been keen to paint themselves in Brexity colours (especially those who voted Remain) they’ve had much less to say about levelling-up. Pressed by debate moderators and interviewers, commitments to this flagship policy have been extracted from both Sunak and Truss — but through gritted teeth it would seem.

The chart also shows strong support for new laws to “protect renters from no fault evictions”. These were introduced by Michael Gove — and are being progressed by his successor at the Department for Levelling Up, Greg Clark. Lord Frost and other Tory Right-wingers who have criticised these reforms might like to note that they’re almost as popular with Conservative voters as they are with the population as a whole. 

As for the policy of investing more taxpayers money in research and development, this too gets a thumbs-up, but is even more popular among Tory voters than voters as a whole. So yet another endorsement for a levelling-up type policy. 

Both Sunak and Truss need to read the room. Brexit allied to levelling-up is what got the Tories elected in 2019 — and it is their only chance of victory in 2024. If they won’t champion this agenda, then I can I think of someone who might. Honouring a promise would be the perfect excuse for a come-back.

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