It has often been said that Boris Johnson was the only person who could hold the current Tory coalition together, a view entrenched by the nasty contest to succeed him. A core reason for this, though, was his capacity for selling political doublethink, or as he put it, being “pro having cake and pro eating it”.
While Conservatives may have tired of Johnson’s personal failings there is less evidence they have tired of cakeism. They want investment in public services and help with energy bills but lower taxation; sound money but also higher borrowing, deregulation with interventionism; Brexit and higher growth; housebuilding but just not where they live.
Today’s Conservative party dislikes hard choices. And this is a problem for Rishi Sunak, because the former chancellor has decided to make facing up to them his key pitch to succeed Johnson.
The cakeist candidate is Liz Truss and the foreign secretary and frontrunner is prepared to go full gateau if it gets her to the top. While Sunak stresses the menace of inflation, his rival is offering unfunded tax cuts to drive growth and a halt to green levies to reduce fuel bills (both demands of the party’s right).
While this might raise questions over whether she is the best person for the country, it probably makes her the right choice for this Conservative party. She offers Johnsonism without his personal deficiencies and unleashed from Sunak’s tiresome demands that spending must be funded. For all her talk to the contrary, Truss is the continuity candidate.
But perhaps the bigger concern about a Truss premiership is that she secured her place in the final two by courting the worst people in her party. The foreign secretary has always been a more serious figure than her caricature and has, in fairness, long challenged Treasury and Bank of England orthodoxy. But ambition has seen the one-time Cameron acolyte allow herself to become the candidate of the ideological obsessives, the fantasists, the climate change diminishers, the culture warriors and those for whom Brexit can only be failing because it has not been properly tried. These people dismiss Sunak as a socialist and blame Johnson’s downfall on anyone but himself.
Truss is smart enough to know better, but canny enough to play along. And so she promises tax cuts, higher borrowing and a more confrontational approach to Brexit. She is enough of a small-stater to favour spending cuts but seemingly not this side of an election.
In this topsy-turvy contest, the Remainer Truss is the Brexit candidate; the woman who loyally served in the cabinet of the past three premiers is the change candidate; a Reaganite who calls herself a Thatcherite who has suddenly found the magic money tree and no longer worries about the deficit.
Meanwhile Sunak, an original Leave supporter, is depicted as a Boris back-stabber and a Brexit trimmer who wishes to avoid confrontation with Brussels. He has become the mainstream candidate, irritating Tories with talk of fiscal responsibility and tackling inflation. Worse, he has dismissed their economic ideas as “fairy tales”.
But Tories want the fairy tale. For many, the test is no longer what you have done but whether you believe. There is no place for questioning. Approbation comes by faith alone.
Truss exemplifies this. Her Brexit credentials rest on her newfound readiness to confront the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol and her overseeing a series of not very advantageous trade deals, their value mattering less than her zeal for them. To underscore her conversion, Truss now says she was wrong to vote Remain. Not only does she admit getting the biggest call for decades wrong, but she may be the only Remainer to have changed her mind on the evidence of the past six years.
Doubt is such a heresy that both candidates must now deny any link between Brexit and delays at Channel ports, or its role in the labour shortages and weak pound which are exacerbating inflation. Both flinch from talk of how to deliver net zero goals or any long-term projects.
And yet this is why Truss is the right choice. The Tories no longer have any time for inconvenient facts or for any strategy other than doubling down on tax cuts and pure Brexit. She will be more convincing in this role.
The gap between Truss’s tax cuts now and Sunak’s next year is not quite as stark as he suggests, though her seeming deprioritisation of inflation is alarming. Yet having played his own role in detaching the party from economic realities, Sunak should not be surprised Tories are now painting him as a “declinist” for presenting them with hard choices. Panicked, he is now offering his own VAT cut on home energy.
Truss has also shown far more guile in the past two years and such low skills matter in politics. Where Sunak has been inflexible, she has been supple. It may be that a victorious Truss will go on to betray her faction. But few modern leaders escape their right flank once they pander to it. Sunak would face such rebels from day one.
Or perhaps her strategy will pay off. A leader who lowers tax and maintains spending is a harder target for Labour. It is possible her economic unorthodoxy is vindicated.
But it seems ever more likely that we will look back at this contest as the final stage of the supposedly natural party of government’s regression into political infantilism. The battle for leader may have a few weeks to run, but the trajectory is set.