The question of whether it will be Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss has staled a bit in the face of persistent polling suggesting Truss is far ahead enough to win comfortably when the result is announced on September 5. But the polling among Conservative Party members has thrown up another persistent trend: they want the winner to be neither of those candidates, but outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
And nor is Boris Johnson the last word so far as opinion polling goes. Three-quarters of Conservative Party members now say they prefer the opposition Labour Party’s plans to cap the cost of energy price rises far better than they do any offered by either of their own candidates. Outside of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party is significantly ahead in the polls, after a long time. Which suggests that were general elections held, the winner would be Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, and not Truss, Sunak, or Johnson.
These trends do place the rhetoric of the two Conservative candidates under a cloud. The next prime minister is already taking on the image of a caretaker prime minister. Not many believe Sunak will be that new PM, and fewer seem to think that Truss could lead the Conservative Party to a win in the next election. Should the Tories win, that would be a fifth successive victory. That has never happened before, and 2024 does not look like the year in which it will happen.
But the contest has staled also because it is going on just too long. The six weeks of campaigning permitted never looked necessary. Twelve hustings have been arranged with several to go right up to the end of August. The candidates come strutting up and say much the same thing again and again, for no fault of theirs really. There are differences between the two but they stand out as much the same difference every time.
Both candidates repeat the same expressions every time, Rishi Sunak more than Liz Truss. Sunak is developing the appearance of a programmed robot. His style has been set by his well-organised and no doubt more than well-paid PR machine, which determines the position he must take that will sell best, and the language he must take it in. He appears in stretches as little more than the mouthpiece of his PR platoon.
Liz Truss has a less impressive package to deliver. Rishi not only speaks better, but he also has more to say, he sounds more believable, certainly on the economy. And of course, nothing matters more. But paradoxically Liz Truss carries an appeal precisely because she appears less programmed and more just a person.
The Sunak style has provoked a couple of high-profile desertions, though this has not opened the “floodgates” to desertions that some tabloids announced. Former minister Chris Skidmore quit the Sunak camp to declare support for Truss. He said he was “increasingly concerned” over the “consistently changing position, especially on the economy, to chase votes”.
Following on from Skidmore, the Wales secretary, Sir Robert Buckland, became the first serving cabinet minister to announce a shift of support away from Sunak to Truss. “As the campaign has moved on, and as I have listened carefully to both candidates, I have thought deeply about the issues that move me and what I want to see the next prime minister doing,” he wrote in The Telegraph. “Changing your mind on an issue like this is not an easy thing to do, but I have decided that Liz Truss is the right person to take our country forward.”
Rishi Sunak’s PR team has led him repeatedly to some shifting over his taxation policy. That has eroded some of the strength of his stand on the economy. Sunak has shown an inclination also to say exactly what he would expect a particular audience to hear. His boast at wealthy Tunbridge Wells that he had diverted funds from poor urban areas to areas “such as this” did not appear to endear him even to wealthy Tory right-wingers. His offered cover-up that he was expressing his concern for deprived rural areas convinced few. It really only added to his image as someone speaking given PR lines rather than speaking from personal conviction.
With so much to say to so many through an election campaign, some such shifting is inevitable, and we’ve had that from Truss as well, who backtracked from an announcement that would have meant less pay for civil servants in peripheral places.
Some reports now suggest that Rishi Sunak has regained some lost ground. But with much of the polling over already, he appears to have run out of time to convince quite as many Conservative Party members as he would need to.