You too can be Tory leader! Just follow John Crace’s 16-part plan

Yes, you’ve left it too late to slug it out with Rish! and Liz Truss, but there’ll be another battle for Top Tory soon enough. Here’s how to ace it

Register your campaign website

You’re going to need to move quickly once you’ve declared yourself a candidate in the leadership race. The first round of voting will take place less than a week after the prime minister has resigned and you don’t want to find yourself caught on the hop. Best to have a domain name and website material fully prepared., since reborn as, was registered back in December last year. That may have been a little too early. It’s hard to claim – though that didn’t stop Rish! – you have been taken aback by events and only recently decided to stand when you’ve been waiting for the day for more than six months. Everyone knows you’ve been desperate for the top job, but it’s bad form to look too eager. Optics are everything.

Trigger the leadership contest

Statement of the obvious, but you can’t have a leadership contest until the previous prime minister has resigned. This proved problematic with Boris Johnson as he is so narcissistic and corrupt that he refused to stand down long after most normal people would have realised the game was up. Once the leadership contenders realised there was no chance of Johnson resigning of his own volition, it became a game of cat and mouse to see who would move first against him. The downside of forcing him out was that you risked looking disloyal; the upside was that you could set the agenda and look like you have a few moral principles. Not always an advantage in the Tory party. In the event Sajid Javid and Rish! did the dirty by resigning within 10 minutes of each other on the evening of 5 July. They tried to claim their resignations weren’t coordinated but it seemed odd they should both have resignation letters prepared. Rish! claimed he was resigning over a disagreement on economic policy, presumably over Johnson’s planned tax cuts. Which rather suggested he was completely fine with Johnson being a serial liar over Partygate and ignoring repeated allegations that the deputy chief whip was a sex pest. Still, we all have our breaking point.

Rishi Sunak launching his campaign for the Conservative party leadership several months after first registering the campaign website.
Rishi Sunak launching his campaign for the Conservative party leadership several months after first registering the campaign website. Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/AP

Make sure you’re in the country … or not

It was almost certainly no coincidence that Liz Truss, Rish!’s main rival, was away at a G20 foreign ministers meeting in Indonesia when he handed in his resignation letter, thereby giving him at least two days’ advantage over her. Truss flew straight back from Indonesia without any of the other G19 ministers noticing she wasn’t there. That’s Global Britain for you. Luckily for Liz, Johnson still managed to hang on for a couple of days, even with more than 50 ministers resigning, so her own leadership campaign wasn’t too inconvenienced. And she could legitimately claim she was the continuity candidate and had nothing to do with the coup against Johnson.

Make a campaign video

For the laughs, if nothing else. No one could tell whether Penny Mordaunt’s was a joke or intended to be taken seriously. Against a soundtrack of I Vow to Thee, My Country and a Little Britain voiceover, Mordaunt’s team took us on a trip around Englishness. That included the murderer Oscar Pistorius and the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox. Rish! chose tell us a story and merely put us to sleep. Truss took us on a whirlwind tour of her Instagram account as she posed with other politicians in front of ever larger union flags. Grant Shapps kept it short and sweet. He had no message other than to MPs: he would say anything to make them electable. Though, sadly, he was unable to make himself electable. Tom Tugendhat just promised to be the opposite of Johnson, which was the kiss of death to his campaign. Nadhim Zahawi said he would release his tax returns – but only the ones he had yet to complete. No one knew what was in Suella Braverman’s video as no one saw it.

Penny Mordaunt’s bid for leadership.
Penny Mordaunt’s bid for leadership. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA

Remember to book a space for your launch event

Grant Shapps and Rehman Chishti never even got round to having a campaign launch before their leadership bids evaporated – a loss to satire if no one else. In 2019, even Matt Hancock and Mark Harper had some kind of do. At Door Matt’s we were all given free phone chargers as campaign merch; appropriately enough, they didn’t work. Harper had just nine people in the room, four of whom were sketchwriters. It was unclear whether Zahawi and Braverman actually had a launch as they were merely given five-minute speaking slots at the launch of a rightwing Tory pressure group, Conservative Way Forward. Or Backward, more like. A woman fainted during Zahawi’s slot. The chancellor for the next few weeks pretended not to notice and just kept on talking. Awks.

If you do book a room, make sure it has air-con

Javid and Mordaunt both booked a small, airless private dining room in Westminster. Javid was pouring with sweat before he had even begun speaking. Not the strongest selling point for the start of a campaign. Still, he did hand out free ice-creams at the end, so all was forgiven. Rish! was in a room in the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre that had plenty of spare spaces, mainly because he had barred several members of the media – including me. Tugendhat booked a four-storey atrium in Millbank and missed a golden opportunity to enter by abseiling in. Did he mention that he had been in the army? Truss was the only one to hire a room with fully functioning air-con. Unfortunately, she had forgotten where the door was. She struggled to find her way in and tried to leave via the first-floor window. Her event had been dismal. But not that dismal.

Tom Tugendhat … he was in the army, you know?
Tom Tugendhat … he was in the army, you know? Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Avoid all stunts

In 2016, during the leadership contest that gave us Theresa May as PM, Andrea Leadsom had organised an event at which she was going to make a speech on the economy. She didn’t mention the economy once. Instead, at the end, she announced she was going to march on Westminster. So a handful of MPs, Tim Loughton and Theresa Villiers among them, walked the 300 yards to parliament shouting: “Who do we want? Andrea Leadsom. When do we want her? Some time in September!” accompanied by me and a few other hacks who couldn’t believe our luck. Once we got to parliament, everyone hung around looking a bit embarrassed before they realised they had no idea what they were doing there and dispersed. Within days, Leadsom had withdrawn from the race, to make May leader by default.

Learn to count

Under the rules of the 1922 Committee, all candidates had to get 20 nominations from Tory MPs to be allowed on to the first round of voting. Neither Shapps nor Javid could even manage that and had to gracefully withdraw from the contest. It was not clear whether Chishti ever had more than one nomination – himself. “I’d like to introduce the next leader of the Tory party. Me.” Weirdly, Hunt made it through to the first ballot, where 30 votes were needed to progress, only to get 18 – fewer than he had got the day before. Must have been something he said. Zahawi also went out in the first round proper.

Stupid stunt … former leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom lending her support to now former leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt.
Stupid stunt … former leadership candidate Andrea Leadsom lending her support to now former leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Don’t trash your opponents

It’s considered bad form to rubbish your leadership rivals. That’s why – if you’re lucky – you have a small army of prominent Tory MPs and other supporters who will do it for you. For a long while Truss was running third in the contest, with her biggest rival for the second qualifying spot, Mordaunt, above her. At which point Team Liz went for Mordaunt, while Truss pretended it was nothing to do with her. David Frost even had the cheek to claim that Mordaunt was a bit lazy and had never been up to the job. This from a man who hadn’t realised he had negotiated the Northern Ireland protocol he was now trying to unpick because the EU had decided to implement it. Truss also got help from Kemi Badenoch’s team. Badenoch had never expected to make the last two and, with the help of Michael Gove, her main man, was trying to raise her profile and secure a future cabinet job. So Badenoch undermining Mordaunt for being too woke won’t have done her any harm at all.

Close down the debates

The last five candidates – Rish!, Truss, Mordaunt, Badenoch and Tugendhat – made it to the weekend of the first three televised debates. The first two were inconclusive affairs, with only Tugendhat being brave enough to say Johnson was totally dishonest. The others played safe, with the main blue-on-blue action being between Rish! and Truss. The two frontrunners quickly realised they were harming their chances, and that the more the public saw of Badenoch, Mordaunt and Tugendhat, the more they liked them. So they both refused to take part in the scheduled Sky debate. So it was cancelled. You can have too much democracy at times like these.

Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch taking part in Britain’s Next Prime Minister: The ITV Debate on 17 July.
Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch taking part in Britain’s Next Prime Minister: The ITV Debate on 17 July. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/ITV/PA

Rig the vote

Four of the final six candidates dropped out of the race pretty much in the order that people expected: Braverman first, then Tugendhat, Badenoch and Mordaunt. But that didn’t discourage rival camps from dropping hints that they might lend votes to opponents to make sure key rivals were knocked out. Gavin Williamson, who prides himself on being an arch-manipulator and helped run Ready4Rish!, would love you to believe he was responsible for votes switching hands in this way, though given his general levels of effectiveness, he probably wasn’t. Even so, by voting Rish! and Truss through to the last two, the Tory MPs have done their utmost to ensure their party loses the next election. At least that’s what several Team Penny MPs suggested to me. So well done them.

All bets are off …

Now we’re down to the last two. The electorate that matters has switched from 358 Tory MPs to about 160,000 Conservative members. So Truss no longer has to feel ashamed of having Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg on her side, because they are as batshit mad as the members. Remember, these people would almost certainly vote Johnson back in as prime minister, even though his MPs and the rest of the country no longer believe a word he says. Here, Truss has a huge advantage because she can legitimately say she was happy for the serial liar to remain in office. Meanwhile, both Rish! and Truss can compete with each other to be the most rightwing contestant. “I’m going to send more refugees to Rwanda than you!” and “I’m tougher on China than you.” Something that no one but the Tory membership really cares about.

Rewrite the past (part one)

It is now totally legitimate for both Rish! and Truss to forget they have both been in government, Sunak as chancellor, Truss as foreign secretary, for years and that they and the Tories are responsible for the mess the UK is in. Both are ready to declare a state of national emergency as they promise to undo the madness and solve the cost of living crisis. They are both going to get a hell of a shock when they find out who has been running things for the past 12 years. There are differences between them, though. Sunak says things are a disaster but it would be even more disastrous if he were to do anything to change that. Truss says the answer is unfunded tax cuts of £34bn. She knows this because Patrick Minford, the economist who got every prediction on Brexit wrong, has told her it’s OK. Phew!

Rivals … Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss during the BBC’s leadership debate on 25 July.
Rivals … Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss during the BBC’s leadership debate on 25 July. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Rewrite the past (part two)

It’s also now fine to reinvent your own past. Truss has been on a journey from a middle-class background in Leeds, where she went to the city’s best comprehensive school and went on to do PPE at Oxford, to a life of grinding working-class poverty. Sunak has been on a similar adventure. He and his family were down to their last Valium in their local pharmacy when he happened to go to Winchester and on to Oxford where he studied PPE. Fancy that! A choice of two PPE graduates. Such diversity. Rish! can scarcely bring himself to revisit the struggle he faced to amass a family net worth of £800m. But he feels our pain.

Cosplay Margaret Thatcher

There’s nothing the Tory members like more than a lazy Maggie stereotype. So Truss has wasted no opportunity to dress up like her for the televised debates and other media appearances. Rish! has had to settle for merely making a pilgrimage to Grantham, where he sobbed at Thatcher’s birthplace before insisting that his economic model was the one she would have admired. The idea that either of them might have policies of their own and that it was time to move on from 80s Maggie nostalgia porn doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.

Carry on the attacks …

Until 5 September, when the new leader will be announced. At the end of the second televised debate Rish! asked Truss why they were being so beastly to one another. That sentiment didn’t last long. Since they both reached the final two, they have spent most of their time attacking each other over everything from wearing the wrong clothes to having the wrong policies. Monday night’s head-to-head debate was probably a low point as Rish! and Truss chose to spend the hour trading insults and ignorance over tax and the climate emergency. Rish! was especially keen on mansplaining over his rival, though both gave the impression they would happily see the country on its knees and let the planet burn in exchange for 24 hours in Downing Street. Each accused the other of being a dangerous halfwit. The worry for the country is that they are both right. Lucky us.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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