There are another six weeks of blue-on-blue action to come
As expected, Liz Truss overtook Penny Mordaunt to win a place in the leadership final against Rishi Sunak. It was close though — Truss finished on 113 in the final MPs’ ballot, a mere eight votes ahead of Mordaunt.
Meanwhile, Sunak finished on 137 — a clear, if not exactly commanding, first place. The margins are such that we can’t rule out the possibility that tactical voting decided the second and third positions.
With that possibility hanging in the air, the complaints have already started. Shortly before the result Sebastian Payne tweeted that ‘Senior allies of Penny Mordaunt claim Liz Truss has “pushed us out”’. This is an odd turn of phrase — suggesting that the second place that Mordaunt has held up until today was hers by right.
There’s also some bellyaching about the ‘attacks’ on their candidate. But while it’s true that Mordaunt has come in for criticism, Sunak and Truss have also been on the receiving end. For instance, Sunak has been accused of causing the next recession and Truss of being a socialist — neither of which is true. My advice to Team Penny is to stop moaning and start planning for next time.
Of course, let’s not forget that the current leadership race is still far from over. We’re not even half-way through. The result of the party members’ vote isn’t due until early September. So that’s another six weeks of blue-on-blue action.
Current polling of party members has Truss beating Sunak. But I wouldn’t be sure this will be the final outcome. The other kind of polling we’re going to see lots of soon will be of the wider public. Only party members get to vote, but with the general election coming into view, we’ll see the focus turn from ideology (a criterion which favours Truss) to electability (one that favours Sunak).
The Tory membership have only been asked to choose their leader three times. In 2019 and 2005 they chose the most electable candidate — i.e. Boris Johnson over Jeremy Hunt and David Cameron over David Davis. But what about 2001 — when they chose Iain Duncan Smith over Ken Clarke?
That, however, was an exceptional situation. Clearly, Clarke was more electable — but he was also a fanatical pro-European who wanted Britain to scrap the pound. These days, no one sane wants to join the single currency. Indeed, the Labour leader doesn’t even want to rejoin the EU. Thus, far from being backwardly ideological, the Tory membership in 2001 was way ahead of the curve.
Drawing upon these precedents I can see only two paths to a Truss victory. The first is that the electability gap between her and Sunak turns out to be much smaller than I’ve assumed. The second, is that she bases her campaign on a defining issue of historical importance. I’m not sure that reversing a modest rise in corporation tax is going to cut it.