Ahead of party conference, Cascade’s Rob Smith (Team Truss) and Rhys Brown (Team Rishi) look back at a unique Conservative leadership election and some of the key campaigning highlights and errors.
Whilst Sunak was the early favourite amongst his parliamentary colleagues, in the end Liz Truss seized the Tory crown and was elected leader by the wider Tory grassroots becoming Britain’s next Prime Minister. It was a race featuring a number of twists and turns but ultimately, like any successful campaign, knowing your audience and managing your message accordingly was key.
Liz Truss’s campaign
Truss is someone who has dabbled in the idea of becoming Prime Minister for some time. Some may remember her short-lived pitch of Summer 2019 suggesting in the Mail on Sunday that the Tories should build a million homes on the green belt, something that if it ever came to fruition would be cheered by developers and met with dismay by Tory members (at least for now). Time will tell whether she intends to be that radical as Prime Minster, but with Britain heading towards the biggest economic crisis for decades, one may argue that she has bigger battles to fight.
It was always touch and go about whether Truss would even make the final two. For a long time, a Sunak V Mordaunt final seemed to be the direction of travel. Whilst popular with Tory members, Mordaunt was squeezed out by the more experienced Truss by just eight votes. It is clear that Truss has big shoes to fill but what was it that swung it for Truss with the Tory grassroots?
Even I will admit to being somewhat shocked by voting for her. Twelve months ago, I don’t think I would have even contemplated it. Quite simply, she is a woman who means business, pledging to hold an Emergency Budget to reverse the National Insurance rise and planned corporation tax next April, alongside other measures. Above all, Truss pledged to govern in a Conservative way by cutting tax and giving people more control over their money and lives. This would have delighted the Tory grassroots, many of whom feel their party has been sliding further to the left in recent years with higher taxes and increased government intervention. Truss even admitted that we now have the highest tax burden in 70 years, a claim that was later repeated by the opposition.
I hope that Truss sceptics will be reassured of her ability to move quickly. Within hours of her assuming the Tory crown, she got her soon-to-be appointed Business Secretary to work, meeting with energy bosses to discuss how the incoming government can work with them to ensure that Britons can afford to pay their fuel bills this winter. The reality is, that whilst Truss may have campaigned as a small state Tory, at least in the short term, she will have to lead her party through further government intervention. It is no accident that the shape of Truss’s cabinet was widely known before it had been formally announced, it is clear that Team Truss has spent some time preparing for government.
Rishi Sunak’s campaign
Rishi Sunak is a politician who many assumed for a long time would be the natural successor to Boris Johnson. Rishi’s quick thinking and pragmatic leadership led the government to delivering many of the schemes that ensured the economy did not collapse during the Covid pandemic. Rishi had recently been involved in a number of controversies, but that didn’t disenfranchise MP’s during the early part of the race for Number 10.
Being the first to publicly resign from Johnson’s administration in reaction to the Chris Pincher affair meant that many blamed him for Johnson’s downfall. It is well known within the Conservative Party that the individual who brings down the leader, rarely becomes the successor. After all, heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Rather than focusing on membership heavy constituencies like his competitor, Sunak spent a lot of time visiting swing voters and constituencies as if he were running a general election campaign. Essentially, he was trying to prove to party members that he would be up to beating Keir Starmer at the next General Election.
Sunak launched his campaign with glossy social media adverts and toured TV news studios with prepared lines. Looking so perfected and streamlined may seem like a positive attribute to a national campaign, however Conservative Party members are often dubious around constant honesty and clear integrity. Sunak was often criticised for being too polished, meaning he did not resonate with the membership and there was a fear that if elected, the public would not appreciate his faultlessness.
In terms of policy, the Sunak camp were again clear and honest, tax cuts and a smaller state were not possible whilst the country is in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis with inflation soaring. This would always be a hard sell to a membership that is known for being much further on the right than the parliamentary party. This is made more difficult when your competitor is spending her time telling the party what they wanted to hear despite knowing that if victorious, within her first days in office, she would ditch her campaigning ideas and be forced to govern for the British people.
Sunak’s campaign was ultimately a failure, a polished campaign alongside doses of honesty may feel like the right thing to do, but when you are trying to appeal to a certain base of membership who are used to a populist leader, success is always going to become more difficult. It appears that promising the world, telling people what they want to hear, and occasional gaffs in the face of the mainstream media can take you to the highest office in the land.