Tory leadership candidates are still feeding off ideas from 2010
At the first Conservative leadership debate, all the talk was of delivery. Spades in the ground. Practical solutions. Coming together. Getting things done. Delivery, delivery, delivery. Forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.
It took half an hour to move on from abstraction — and from Boris Johnson, whose ungainly, blundering presence lurked over proceedings, and about whom Liz Truss, Penny Mordaunt and Rishi Sunak were incapable of constructing a coherent sentence. Truth be told he probably could have wiped the floor with all of them bar Tom Tugenhadt. At least he would have made the whole thing more watchable. Finally, after the brief and inevitable skirmish over gender self-identification, we got an acknowledgement of the dire economic situation we are in.
The bare minimum we can ask for from a prospective political leader might be an analysis of the state of the country and a strategy to right the course. They might say something like this: growth, productivity and wages have been stagnant since 2008. The average Briton has gone from among the most prosperous in Europe to somewhere firmly stuck in the middle. The young are shut out of the housing market, and the costs of building infrastructure here are multiple times what they are on the continent. They might acknowledge that the cross-party consensus that supported the sell-off of our assets and the outsourcing of our state capacity has revealed our national vulnerability.
Instead, we were treated to a tedious rehashing of Gordon Brown and George Osborne back and forths over tax and spend. Kemi Badenoch briefly acknowledged things were not zero-sum, before reverting and invoking the spectre of the ‘magic money tree’. Sunak called out the ‘fairytale economics’ of borrowing. It was 2010 all over again and we the public had to be levelled with and told hard truths, like naughty schoolchildren.
A few marginal retail offers around energy bills were flirted with noncommittally, but nothing that grasped the scale of the crisis facing people this winter. Incapable of thinking about the national economy and how to strengthen its resilience for the era of competing global powers and competition over resources, all candidates seemed content to tinker at the margins.
There was nothing on housing (earlier today, however, Tugenhadt — the Serious Centrist Candidate, remember — warned that Labour were going to concrete the country with “socialist homes”; the most promising announcement yet from the Starmer leadership). Nothing on immigration. Nothing on ownership. Nothing on wages. Even the war in Ukraine barely figured. The leadership contenders — and Channel 4 itself — seemed to exist in a different country altogether. It is no wonder the audience weren’t impressed.
The format didn’t help. Audience questions lent the debate the feel of daytime television. Our political class lacks stature and our media is determined to rub it in, placing them on a panel no more than a few inches high.
The race feels open, and there is still time for one of the candidates to take up the mantle and emerge with a vision for these islands that will arrest our longstanding stagnation, but tonight was not that time.