The Impossible Campaign?


First Published August 24th 2022 on richardopenshaw.org.uk

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are coming to the end of a campaign to be elected as the Conservative leader. By default a win will propel them to the Prime Ministership. Once there, they will immediately require the support of their MP’s and, ultimately, must convince the general public.

That’s three different constituencies and, while their immediate concern must be the leadership election, the things they say and do during this campaign will be noted by those they will need later. That makes things difficult to pitch. On the face of it, the transition from winning over 200,000 Tory members to gaining the support of 350 MP’s may seem straightforward but I’m not sure it will be as simple as it appears. Sure, to be get to the final two candidates they had to win support of MP’s but the nature of that process means that those who backed one candidate wouldn’t necessarily be too keen on the other.

Of 357 current Conservative MP’s, 218 voted for someone other than Sunak in the final round of voting – including 113 who voted for Truss. That figure rises to 242 for Truss. Of course, many of those who gave their support elsewhere – presumably those who supported Penny Morduant in that vote – would have already chosen a preferred candidate from the final two. History tells us, however, that for all politicians may outwardly preach solidarity, factions and divisions can run very deep within all parties and it can sometimes take very little for old rivalries to surface. While the government majority is still healthy at 71, the incoming Prime Minister could ill afford such a rebellion – just ask Boris Johnson.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss must balance the prioritise of the Conservative membership with those of the electorate as whole (Photo: bbc.co.uk)

It is the support of the wider electorate though, that will be the biggest concern and challenge. At some point they will have to face a general election. In theory this could be put off until early 2025 but many commentators see an earlier election as inevitable.

Everyone knows that it takes just a small proportion of constituencies to decide the ultimate outcome. The 80 seat majority that Boris Johnson won, somewhat unexpectedly, in 2019 was secured thanks to the taking of so called ‘red wall’ seats. Seats that were not previously seen as among those marginals that could swing an electrion. They were seen as erstwhile Labour heartlands. Undoubtedly, one of the key drivers to Johnson achieving this was Brexit – something that garnered good support among the working class across the political spectrum. At the time, Labour’s messaging over Brexit was unclear – they clearly felt that to commit too decisively one way or another could alienate large numbers of voters – and the Conservatives were warning that Brexit may not ‘get done’. That was enough to win those red wall seats.

Those circumstances are no longer present. Whether you believe it or not, the Conservatives are telling us that Brexit is now done. That means that those for whom Brexit was a key issue in 2019 may now be looking towards the priorities that saw them voting Labour in large numbers previously. Keir Starmer too has attempted to clarify his position on Brexit. He will not entertain the idea of an attempted return to the EU, a very obvious move to address those lost seats.

So what does this mean for Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss? Without the Brexit angle, they may need to appeal to these former Labour constituencies in other ways, yet they have shown no signs during this leadership battle that they will seek to occupy the middle ground conventionally associated with gaining seats traditionally held by  your opponent.

Whether it is Truss promising to smash the unions or Sunak proudly boasting to have diverted funding away from deprived areas and towards leafy Tory strongholds, I’ve seen little attempt to appeal to any but the right wing of their own party. The reason for that, of course, is the belief that is where the majority of party members sit, and that may well be true. Long gone though, are the days when promises made to local branch associations would go unreported and unheard by the population at large. Any attempt to move back to the centre ground would be seen, rightly or wrongly, as either a breaking of pledges to the party faithful or a cynical change of direction in an attempt to win over voters.

These difficulties can only be exacerbated by fact that the government’s reputation has taken a massive battering over the last couple of years. The by elections in Wakefield and Tiverton earlier this year show that the Conservatives are losing ground on all fronts.

It is this combination of factors that makes this current campaign close to impossible. The policies that will win the support of party members may well prove to be quite different from those that can win a general election for a government that has been mired on scandal. A government that both Sunak and Truss have been very much at the heart of.

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