Will Truss be able to put the Tory party back together again?

Despite all the talk of coming together when this is over, and how much Liz Truss prefers Rishi Sunak to Keir Starmer, it seems that the candidates and their supporters cannot help themselves. In Cheltenham on Thursday, Sunak said Truss’s plans would “leave millions of incredibly vulnerable people at the risk of real destitution”.

The next day, when the new GDP figures were published, Truss put out a statement implying that it was Sunak who was responsible as chancellor for the “shrinking of the UK economy”.

Every time a leading Tory urges restraint, journalists and Labour MPs, none of whom can believe their luck, fear that their fun has come to an end and that the remaining weeks of the campaign will be conducted with elaborate politeness. After all, most of the votes that will be cast have probably been cast by now, and it is not as if insults ever change people’s minds, except to turn them against the insulter.

But the restraint of self-preservation appears to have been cast aside. Sometimes the voices urging the campaigns to dilute the vitriol are dignified grandees from the party’s past – although Nigel Lawson could not resist instead a touch of Lloyd Bentsen with his “I served with Margaret Thatcher” article, aimed at Truss.

Sometimes the voices are current cabinet ministers, such as Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, who took his cabinet colleague Dominic Raab to task for his “electoral suicide” comment about Truss’s plans for tax cuts. That was the day before Clarke wrote a joint article with Kwasi Kwarteng, in which they told tales out of school (and contrary to the ministerial code) about what Sunak had said in cabinet, and accused him of having “given up” by adopting a “Labour-lite economic policy”.

As I say, journalists cannot believe their luck, though Andrew Gimson, Boris Johnson’s biographer, complains that the Tory leadership battle is not vicious enough. He says: “In order to discover what the nation needs, it is necessary to have an argument.” That argument “is actually an essential process of debate, which might benefit from being more violent and wide-ranging than it is”.

And the Labour Party must now have a searchable computer file as long as AJP Taylor’s How Wars Begin containing all the disobliging things that Tories have said about each other. This might not be as terrible for the governing party as some of the Tory shushers warn. There is much angst about how Labour is going to put quotations about “the risk of real destitution” on posters at the next election, but by then the caravan will have moved on, Truss will have doled out her “handouts” to avoid the worst of the destitution – as she must – and the baseline numbers for the debate about tax cuts will have been recalculated.

It seems more likely that the more serious cost to the Tory party of today’s insults is the damage they do to the fabric of discipline. The ruder they are about each other now, the harder they will find it to bite their tongues over the next two years.

So far, the Tory party’s instinct for unity has manifested itself in a show of careerism unprecedented since the ancien regime. The stampede of Sajid Javid, Chris Skidmore, Robert Buckland and even Kemi Badenoch, rushing to the aid of the victor, recalls the “dreadful noise, absolutely like thunder” described by Henriette Campan, Marie Antoinette’s première femme de chambre, as courtiers deserted the dying Louis XV to pay homage to his heir, Louis XVI.

Who knows what deniable promises of jobs have been made to secure the impression of a tide running in Truss’s favour. It doesn’t do much to enhance the reputations of the late endorsers, and it only stores up more trouble for the future, because every front-bench place filled creates, as Abraham Lincoln observed, a dozen disappointed jobseekers.

If she has any basic political skill – and her frontrunner status suggests that she has – Truss will undertake a grand truth and reconciliation exercise as soon as she becomes leader. Hard though it is to imagine her offering meaningful jobs to Sunak and Raab, she ought to, because bitterness is dangerous. Sunak had 137 Tory MPs publicly backing him and, if half of them become estranged from the new prime minister, that would wipe out the government’s working majority of 71.

Naturally, the party will pretend to come together under the new leader, whoever she may be, as Johnson threatened to joke in his final Prime Minister’s Questions. She will probably enjoy a honeymoon in the opinion polls: contrary to the expectations of some Sunak supporters, it seems that the more the public see of her, the more they like her. It is also a law of politics that the imminence of the general election will exert some centripetal pull on the anti-Truss irreconcilables.

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But it seems likely that the habit of contempt, which has now been learned, cannot be unlearned, and that the parliamentary Tory party will be hard to manage, particularly in an economic crisis, which will dominate the period between now and the next election. I cannot predict how the weakness of Truss’s position will manifest itself, just as no one could have predicted that Johnson would be brought down by his handling of the failure of his own office to abide by public health laws.

It was predictable, though, that if Johnson hit trouble he would find few Tory MPs at his back, and so it proved. Truss might inspire a little more loyalty, mainly based on her synthetic ideology of “true Conservatism”, but she would probably not have been the choice of a majority of MPs if the leader had been elected under the pre-1998 rules. And the tenor of her campaign, portraying Sunak and his supporters as “Labour-lite”, is a mirror-image of the Corbynite slur against their Labour opponents. She should not be surprised if some of Sunak’s supporters end up voting with Labour in the House of Commons.


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