In the romcom How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Kate Hudson’s journalist character is commissioned to write a piece about putting off a boyfriend in record time with erratic and often rude behaviour until he feels he has no choice but to dump her. The Tory party hasn’t yet interrupted a boys’ poker night to weep about the death of a “love fern”, but the way it is conducting its leadership contest smacks of a similar desperation to be dumped by the electorate.
Is this the How To Lose an Election Two Years Early guide? Are the insults flung between the camps the behaviour of a party that wants voters to have faith in it, when its leading lights don’t appear to have faith in each other? Is the power vacuum over the cost of living crisis just what has to happen while the leadership contest trundles on or a sign that everyone at the top, including the pair vying to take over, has little energy left and can’t be bothered to go all in to get a grip of the situation?
Political parties exist to win power and get things done, but that doesn’t always mean they really want it. The Tories in the late 1990s were so exhausted and chaotic at the end of their lengthy spell in government that being chucked out of government almost seemed a kindness, like an elderly driver having their licence taken away after too many near misses. Labour visibly breathed a sigh of sad relief in 2010 when it lost that election – and so many of its senior figures today talk privately about how “we needed that time in opposition to regroup and work out what we stood for”.
The Conservatives did, after Boris Johnson’s 2019 victory, believe that they had found the political alchemist’s dream of being able to regenerate while in government rather than doing so in opposition. Some among them think that’s still the case, with the contest unearthing new exciting faces such as Kemi Badenoch, Tom Tugendhat and Penny Mordaunt. They now hope to use that alchemy to win a historic fifth term in power. But the way they’re behaving at present suggests they’d privately quite like the next term to be from the comfort of opposition where they don’t have to take any difficult decisions for a while.
Many Tory MPs are utterly bewildered by the twists and turns of the contest, wondering whether Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak want a functioning party that can govern for another two years and then win another election. One MP moans: “When you’ve got a wound, you can cauterise it, like Boris did with my colleagues who he kicked out in 2019 over Brexit. Painful, but it probably works better than the alternative, which is to leave the wound bleeding. We are bleeding.” The bleeding will continue long after the contest is over because Truss and Sunak have said enough about each other and their party’s record in government to keep Sir Keir Starmer from having to write any of his own criticisms this side of Christmas. Even before the battle narrowed down to the final two, other leadership hopefuls such as Badenoch and Mordaunt were providing the opposition with plenty of fodder by saying the public services the Conservatives have run for the past 12 years were in a “desperate state”. These are not the statements of people who see their party’s brand as the most precious thing.
Even those who have declared their support for one of the pair aren’t sure if the Conservatives can regain their composure after this contest. Others who are publicly signed up to campaigns confess to me that they wish they could be a million miles away “from all this”. By “this”, they think they mean the gory leadership contest, but I wonder if they also mean from their party more generally, flailing about without ideas or motivation.
Sunak certainly thinks there’s a risk this is true: he and his outriders in the media keep warning that picking Truss will consign the party to opposition. They argue that voters will not forgive the Conservatives for focusing on tax cuts above more effective measures for dealing with rampant inflation. If his analysis of Truss’s pitch as being merely what Tory members want to hear is correct, then the fact that she is frontrunner would suggest that the party membership are less into winning than they’ve been for a long time, too. Sunak chose to speak to the country first, rather than the party, and that gamble looks likely to fail. One of his supporters suggests that the post-mortem examination of the Ready for Rishi! campaign would also be that of the Tories’ next election victory because it would suggest that the party has retreated into a comfort zone of going for what it, not the electorate, wants.
Other Tory MPs – not only those backing Truss – argue that Sunak’s failure shows that the party has had enough of technocrats and unpleasant backroom behaviour. The “technocrat” accusation is levelled not just at Sunak, who is not a very political politician, but also at the advisers he has working with him. The figures in the shadows who have been twisting MPs’ arms to get them to support Sunak also include Gavin Williamson, who enjoyed being chief whip a little too much when he held the position a few years ago. Johnson’s camp mutter that the sunny and personable Sunak is more aware of the arm-twisting than he will admit – though they remain deeply embittered at the way the former chancellor dramatically quit the government and contributed to the prime minister’s departure. Then again, the Truss campaign insists it is only offering a positive vision, while at the same time trying to come up with a new insult for Sunak. The most amusing in recent days was that he was like Gordon Brown: a comparison that would seem ludicrous at any time but particularly in the week that the former prime minister was the only one who had anything of interest to say about the scale of the cost of living crisis and also about what a commensurate response might be.
Brown’s repeated interventions last week showed up Starmer, who has been absent from the debates over the cost of living. The Labour leader has been on holiday, but it’s not clear whether returning from a break will mean he suddenly displays hitherto hidden levels of political courage and creativity. The holiday wasn’t really the problem: Starmer’s caution was there long before he packed his suitcase. The leadership contest has given him the perfect space to step up, saying the Tories are too small-minded and preoccupied with themselves to offer the big solutions this country needs. But as one Truss backer says: “It shows how useless Labour are that the one with all the ideas is the guy who was the worst effing prime minister this country has ever seen.”
Starmer has spent the past few months “framing” various issues ahead of a party conference where his allies hope he will show he’s really got what it takes to win voters over. Currently, the electorate seem to be still in the position of Matthew McConaughey’s character Benjamin Barry, who tries to stick to the bet he’s made to make a girl fall in love with him within 10 days, even though she is doing everything she can to throw him off the scent. Labour is only a few points ahead in the polls, despite the Tories having tantrums that Hollywood directors would think unrealistic. And Starmer seems to be satisfied that he’s shown enough boldness merely by doing the very necessary detoxifying work within his party, including booting out Jeremy Corbyn. That’s not enough to make voters fall for your party after its own long spell of behaving badly.
Any romcom worth its salt, including How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, concludes with a chase, preferably in a car, with one of the leading characters realising they’ve made a terrible mistake in ditching the other. There will be no such feelgood plot twist in September once this contest is over. The new leader will not have the time or political space to do a kiss-and-make-up tour. “We aren’t going to get a honeymoon, a mini-moon or even a candlelit dinner,” says one minister. “It is going to be extremely tough straight away.” The Tories dismiss Brown as the leader who took the Labour party back into its preferred state of opposition. But in fairness to the former prime minister, he did everything he could to stop the financial system collapsing. It’s not clear that the Conservative party will put in the same level of effort into the current economic crisis or, indeed, to winning the next election.
• Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of the Spectator