The timetable for the Tory leadership was supposed to be tight, installing a replacement for Boris Johnson without gratuitous delay. But in the absence of a functional government, it feels interminable. Mr Johnson has awarded himself a summer of gardening leave, despite mounting evidence that Britain is heading for an autumn of discontent, leading to a winter of strife. A massive energy price shock is due when the cap on domestic bills is lifted at the start of October. Inflation is degrading household incomes. The lack of direction from Downing Street would be problem enough, but the character of the leadership contest – petty, bitter and unequal to scale of the task ahead – compounds the impression of a country drifting aimlessly into crisis.
Neither of the candidates has displayed any imagination in responding to the cost of living crisis. Also, the contest gives them incentive to appeal only to a tiny, mostly wealthy, retired, propertied electorate. Their prescriptions for shielding people from the coming storm are written for an audience that is disproportionately protected already.
There is policy disagreement between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak on the cost of living crisis, but the frame of the discussion is heavily skewed to the right. It is a conversation predicated on deep suspicion of government assistance, which Ms Truss treats derisively as a “handout” and a misuse of taxpayers’ money. Mr Sunak would be more munificent, in theory, but he can hardly be said to be further to the left when his disciplinarian fiscal policy guarantees austerity at a time when public services desperately need investment.
What the debate lacks in intellectual breadth it makes up in personal attacks, via unnamed “friends”, on the candidates’ credentials to serve in Downing Street. The blue-on-blue skirmishing is unedifying and the right-on-right ideological frame deprives the country of a balanced view. It is an unhealthy ratchet effect that drags all of politics towards partisan Conservative talking points ahead of the autumn party conferences.
Opposition parties are not involved in the election, but that doesn’t prevent them engaging with the issues. The gravity of the situation demands that a wider range of voices be heard. The Liberal Democrats have obliged with a bold demand that the energy price cap not be lifted in October and the cost met with a windfall tax on providers. Sir Ed Davey understood that, morally, a party leader had to say something. For Labour, Gordon Brown has also called for the price cap to be suspended. Mr Brown, writing in the Guardian, proposes a windfall tax on energy firms and bankers to help the poorest meet higher costs. Mr Brown speaks with the authority of a former prime minister whose finest hour was his role in galvanising international action at a time of financial crisis. His natural gravitas exposes the flimsiness of the two Tory pretenders to the highest office in British politics.
It also exposes Sir Keir Starmer’s absence from the stage. The official opposition leader is entitled to a summer holiday (as is the prime minister), but Labour’s voice should be louder at a time when Tory views are being amplified by the discordant chorus of a leadership contest. There is tactical wisdom in Napoleon’s counsel that enemies should not be interrupted when they are making mistakes, but discretion is also not the best strategy when the country needs to hear about the alternatives.
What was left of the Tories’ credibility after Mr Johnson’s misrule is being frittered away in vacuous bickering adjacent to the real issues. That is a long-term problem for the party. But when the contest ends, and its narrow, dogmatic and partisan terms have boxed the new prime minister into bad policies, it will become an urgent problem for the country.
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