The cruelest cut in the Tory leadership race


Shortly before voting closed in the final elimination round of the Tory leadership race, Michael Gove, a Conservative Party heavyweight whom Boris Johnson sacked from the cabinet before his own downfall, made the case for Kemi Badenoch. Speaking to the Policy Exchange think tank, he called Badenoch an “intellectual superior”, who had three things the next leader needed: “courage, conviction and clarity”.

Either the majority of Tory MPs did not see the same qualities in Badenoch, or they decided to get them elsewhere (including with Badenoch in a future cabinet). After Tuesday’s vote, there are three possibilities for Britain’s next prime minister – and Badenoch is not one of them.

The next bit seems simple. Tory MPs are due to trim the final list – of Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and Penny Mordant – to two on Wednesday. Then they give party members six weeks to test the candidates and choose the next prime minister. But this last cut is the most difficult to make.

The problem is not simply that it is difficult to nominate a single candidate with the charisma to repeat Johnson’s electoral successes, the seriousness to elevate the party above the enormous damage he has done to the conservative brand and the experience to manage the huge problems facing the country from the cost of living crisis to the war in Ukraine. The Conservatives are anything but realistic. Johnson was unique in many ways, but other leadership candidates bring strengths that couldn’t shine when he monopolized all the limelight; and they don’t call it cabinet government for nothing.

Conservatives know that perfection does not exist; the problem is that they just can’t agree on what they’re optimizing for in the next leader.

Is it a governance experience? If so, then Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – the remaining beasts of Boris Johnson’s cabinet – are the best candidates to present to voters. And yet, watching the two is a reminder of their close ties to the Johnson era, even though Sunak stepped down from his post towards the end.

If MPs want a pick that also maximizes charisma and voter appeal, something Johnson had in spades, then it will be hard to leave Liz Truss in the bottom two, bossy as she seems. Truss, who still trails Mordaunt in MP voting, is polling extremely well among Tory members, but even she admitted she wasn’t the shrewdest candidate.

Given the crisis in the cost of living and rising inflation, one would think that MPs would give a bonus to the candidate with the most convincing economic plan. After all, the next leader takes control of a mid-sized world power and the G7 economy. It’s a high bar for the less experienced Mordaunt, who has done little in recent days to dispel feelings that his views on economic policy lack detail. Whether it was tactical or whether she just didn’t have time to think about these things (despite writing a book laying out her governmental vision) is unclear.

If Mordaunt has a credibility problem and Truss has a relatability problem, then Sunak faces a bigger hurdle in the final round: his name is the Daily Mail, a tabloid that is gospel to many party members. (with the Daily Telegraph) and who attacked Sunak. economic record quite fiercely.

Given the string of scandals that have brought down Johnson and the deep loss of public trust, the party may decide it needs to optimize its character first. Sunak and Truss both score high on Personal Integrity. Mordaunt earns points as a Royal Navy reservist who worked to support his family as a teenager after his mother died of cancer. But loyalty is also a quality the Tories want to reward and Sunak’s decision to leave Johnson’s cabinet is one he will have to continue to explain, though the party should be grateful to this day.

And you can keep playing this game of what to optimize. The MP still fighting to get Brexit done by reneging on Northern Ireland protocol might think it’s safer with Truss. The MP looking for a candidate capable of uniting a party still very divided into several tribes should try Mordaunt and lose either Truss or Sunak. And all of that is before taking into account careerism which is never far from a consideration (i.e., who is most likely to win and give me a ministerial position?).

Badenoch’s rise and exit at this point are good signs – she will be heard in future Tory contests and will most likely find a role in government. But her zigzag statements on the net zero climate pledge indicate she is less of a staunch politician than Gove’s salesmanship suggests.

I suspect Sunak would be best suited to match his wit, experience, and mastery of detail to Mordaunt’s shrewd but so far somewhat empty offering. It’s possible that on closer scrutiny, Mordaunt’s campaign will fail, leaving Sunak with a clear path to No. 10. Should she show up on occasion, voters would have a real choice between two personalities and paths. very different policies. A Sunak-Truss battle, on the other hand, might leave too much blue blood on the mat for the Party’s liking in the end. Already, the debates have given Labor some pretty impressive free publicity.

What should curators optimize for? Integrity, competence and clear vision of governance. It sounds simple. But one of Johnson’s lasting legacies is that he won big by promising something for everyone. The confrontation with reality is harsh. Ah, making decisions.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Conservatives must choose between Thatcher and Reagan leadership: Martin Ivens

• Princess Diana documentary shows why the monarchy is in danger: Max Hastings

• Finally, a roadmap for the energy crisis in Europe: Maria Tadeo

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

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