Alison Rowat: Deja vu all over again as Tory rivals fight for Thatcher’s mantle

AND the winner in the contest to be Britain’s Next Prime Minister will be … named after the break. A six week break, during which Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will tour a country of 67 million people to garner the votes of 160,000-plus Conservative Party members.

You’ve heard of the Great British Bake Off; welcome to the Great British Mug Off, in which once again the electorate in Scotland and elsewhere is treated as a minor player in the latest Conservative Party psychodrama.

Is it really possible there will be six more weeks of this? Or will one of the two do an Andrea Leadsom and drop out?

It seems a cruel and unusual punishment to inflict on a population, particularly when the two candidates are after the same prize: the right to be crowned the latest heir to Margaret Thatcher.

Regardless of who wins this contest, politics at Westminster is heading back to what we might call the Thatcherite, pussy-bow blouse era, in honour of the premier who was so fond of silk tops that tied at the neck.

Before the final MPs’ vote yesterday, Liz Truss had actually worn such a blouse, so determined was she to invoke memories of Mrs T. Penny Mordaunt pointedly avoided doing so, but had favoured the style in the past. Rishi Sunak went for the metaphorical version of the pussy-bow, dubbing his “when, not if” tax cut plan “common-sense Thatcherism”.

You might have thought the leadership hopefuls would have emphasised the need for change. That, after all, tends to be the tack whether you are selling a washing powder or a candidate for office. New and improved is always more attractive than same old, same old.

That is to ignore, however, the particular electorate that is the Tory Party membership. Relatively little is known about this body politic, including their precise number, which has been put at anywhere between 160,000 and 200,000.

What knowledge there is comes courtesy of the groundbreaking Party Members Project run by Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University.

This three-year study of the UK’s largest parties found Conservative Party members to be older than average, southern, middle or upper class, white British (95%) and Leave voters (76%). What they valued most in a leader was an ability to connect with “ordinary people”.

That last point could be crucial in determining the winner of the 2022 contest. Mrs Thatcher’s initial rise through the party ranks, and her early electoral appeal, were built on the notion that she came from ordinary people, she was an ordinary person, and she understood ordinary people.

This was more clever marketing than fact. As a well-paid professional in her own right, and married to a rich man, it had been a long time since she steered a shopping trolley round a supermarket (if she ever did).

Where it began to go wrong for Mrs Thatcher was when she stopped connecting. No-one in touch with the concerns of ordinary people would have thought the poll tax a good idea. It was the kind of policy that could have been put together by a machine, something which took no account, and had no understanding of, basic fairness.

Boris Johnson’s rise and fall followed a similar pattern. His ability to connect with voters was the making of him; his inability to understand why those same people found Partygate so offensive did much to bring about his demise.

If today’s Conservative party members place as much store on being in touch with ordinary people then Rishi Sunak is in trouble. In a YouGov poll this week, both Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt were more popular among activists than the former Chancellor. In a 1:1 contest Ms Truss beat Mr Sunak 54:35.

Other qualities might count for more: experience, record in office, stance on tax cuts, simply waging a better campaign, sense of humour even.

Above all, the winner will be the one party members reckon can lead them to victory at the next election. Conservatives traditionally have more of a transactional relationship with their leaders than an emotional one. Being strictly business about politics is what has made the party so successful at winning power and keeping it.

Even by the standards of such events, yesterday’s announcement of the final two had a surreal air about it, as if what we were witnessing was merely the latest stage in this carry on, and we shall all be back here again before too long.

It was not just Boris Johnson bowing out of his last Prime Minister’s Questions with an even more graceless speech than the one he gave recently at the podium in Downing Street. “Mission largely accomplished – for now”. “Hasta la vista baby” indeed.

How typically lazy of the old rogue to borrow someone else’s words. All that expensive education and all he can do in the end is look up some quotes on imdb.

Mr Johnson may well believe that he will be back like Arnie one day. It’s a mad, bad joke but as we know from experience mad bad jokes can find themselves in Downing Street.

If it is not Mr Johnson claiming his old job back it could well be someone else challenging for the leadership. For whoever emerges as winner come September will be in charge of a party at war with itself, yet again. If anything the divisions will be greater and harder to heal.

So the caravan rolls away from Westminster, first stop a BBC debate on Monday evening between the final two. Though the word has gone out to avoid another “knife fight in a phone box”, as defeated contender Tom Tugendhat described it, it is hard to believe there won’t be more rancour.

With both candidates having been members of the same Cabinet they have to exploit any differences to the fullest, and it will get personal. It already has.

Given how close Penny Mordaunt came in the end her supporters may feel aggrieved. There have already been mutterings, nothing more, about questionable tactics.

Someone will benefit from this disarray but it won’t be you, or me, or the generation who come after and have to clear up the mess and the debt as best they can. In the absence of a General Election, that’s the future, tied up in a not so pretty bow.

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