On Wednesday, Conservative MPs voted to select the final two candidates for the Leader of the Party and Prime Minister. One is the former Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who secured 137 votes. The other is Liz Truss, the current Foreign Secretary, who came second with 113 votes.
This follows a frenetic campaign over the past fortnight where 11 candidates put themselves forward to replace Boris Johnson after his three years in office. In contrast to past leadership elections, some of the candidates to attract significant support were relatively new MPs with little or no Ministerial experience. In particular, the Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Tom Tugendhat and Levelling Up Minister Kemi Badenoch – who ended up in fourth and fifth place respectively – effectively knocked out far better known and more experienced candidates, such as Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid. One of the reasons for their success is that both Badenoch and Tugendhat ran, in their own distinct ways, campaigns focused on presenting themselves as ‘the change candidate’ running against ‘the establishment’. That they scored so well illustrates how much Parliamentarians wanted to see a decisive shift away from the current Prime Minister and those around him.
It is often said that all elections fundamentally come down to whether it is time for change – or not. Despite the early success of these “outsider” candidates in attracting admiration and support, Conservative MPs ultimately opted for two of the safest candidates who have held the most senior Cabinet positions.
What happens now is a six-week mini election campaign to win the support of around 170,000 Conservative Party members. The result of that ballot will be known on 5th September, the day Parliament returns after the Summer Recess and just a few weeks before the Conservative Party conference arrives in Birmingham in October.
What happens next?
The Party has already announced 12 hustings across the UK. The first will be held on 28th July in Leeds and the final debate will be in London on 31st August. Party members will be able to attend and hear directly from the final two candidates.
In August, a postal ballot will be sent to every member. There is one important change from previous leadership elections: Party members will be able to return their postal ballot immediately but, critically, will have the option to change their vote online at any time. That certainly means that the hustings assume much greater importance to influence the outcome than in the past.
I oversaw the private polling and focus groups in a number of previous leadership election so was able to predict the result very early on. In those contests, almost all members would return their ballots within days – if not hours – of receiving them. That meant that, whatever happened during the latter stagesof the contest, it would make no difference to the result.
This time it is different. With vote changes allowed up until the very end of the campaign, it is possible for events to shift significant numbers of votes. And if the past few months in politics have shown anything, it is that what can appear a very trivial “event” can turn out to have major consequences.In addition, any head-to-head television debates, particularly the one scheduled for the BBC One next Monday night could be pivotal.
Over recent weeks, there have been a huge number of polls pitting the various leadership candidates against one another. There is a clear difference between how the final two are seen among the wider public and party members. Latest Opinium polling for example shows Liz Truss with a net favourability of -14, with 44% of those polled believing she would make a bad PM; and Rishi Sunak with a rather better net favourability of 0. But among Party members, it is a different story. The latest YouGov poll of members is stark: Liz Truss leads Rishi Sunak by 62% to 38%, a whopping 24 points.
There has been much reporting about the differences between the two remaining candidates. But the truth is that across a huge swathe of issues, from providing arms for the Ukrainian Government to supporting Net Zero, the two are closely aligned – hardly surprising as they spent the past two years sitting round the same Cabinet table.
Where they have major disagreements is over economic policy. The former Chancellor has maintained the cautious – one might even say conservative – approach of focusing on balancing the books and calling out the “fairytale economics” of immediate tax cuts. Liz Truss, on the other hand, has promised to reverse her opponent’s National Insurance rise among other changes that economists have forecast to cost up to £38 billion . Whoever wins, it is unlikely they will be inviting the other candidate to be their Chancellor.
This feels like yet another heart vs head – emotion vs reason, if you prefer – decision, in much the same way as the last General Election and the Brexit Referendum unfolded. In this leadership election, one side is trying to make a rational appeal for fiscal caution and the other is making an emotional appeal around tax cuts. As such, it is clear which argument is winning so far. But elections can shift quickly, as the 2017 General Election proved so decisively (and ultimately fatally) for Theresa May. However, unless Rishi Sunak can dent these perceptions quickly, it is likely that it will be Prime Minister Truss delivering her acceptance speech from behind the Downing Street lectern in September.
The scale of challenge facing the new Prime Minister will be greater than any in the post war period: high inflation, zero growth, an energy crisis, a huge NHS backlog post COVID and a war on the edge of Europe – plus a looming General Election within two years. Successfully tackling even some of these would be an immense task for even the most talented and experienced of Prime Ministers; faced with them all simultaneously will rapidly make or break the reputation of the new occupant of No10.