After a televised Conservative leadership debate exposed the stark divisions among rivals vying to be the next UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak turned to Liz Truss and asked: “Why are we doing this?”
Both are now in the runoff to succeed Boris Johnson as Tory party leader. Yet any intentions to try to temper so-called blue-on-blue attacks ahead of another televised debate at 9 p.m. on Monday appear to have been abandoned. If anything, the sparring has become even nastier — and more personal.
The latest row was triggered Sunday, when Sunak’s campaign accused Truss of turning a “blind eye” to Chinese influence by allowing the proliferation of state-sponsored language institutes while she was an education minister. The issue is sensitive for Truss, who as Johnson’s foreign secretary has overseen a hardening of the UK’s position toward China under pressure from Tory MPs.
Her team countered by briefing reporters it is Sunak who was “soft on China” while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, accusing him of prioritizing trade over security. It is a long-running theme of the contest, including that Sunak was also slow to approve sanctions on Russia for fear of harming the economy.
Sunak’s spokesperson denied the accusation, and an ally pointed out that the Treasury was heavily involved in designing Russia sanctions.
In many ways it’s not the specific claims and denials that are significant. The race to succeed Johnson will be decided by about 175,000 grassroots members of the Tory party — and both candidates appear to have decided that winning them over means cementing their candidacy on the ideological right: tough on China and immigration, and evangelical about Brexit.
One candidate taking a stand on an issue forces their rival to go further — or to accuse their opponent of being late to the cause.
But while they have different views on tax cuts, their positions on other issues are coalescing, leaving little room to distinguish themselves. The dividing lines are increasingly about Johnson — Truss stayed loyal, Sunak’s resignation helped trigger the prime minister’s demise — and about personal differences.
By Monday, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a vocal Truss backer and Johnson loyalist, was tweeting that while Truss is campaigning wearing earrings worth £4.50 ($5.40) from the budget high street chain Claire’s Accessories, Sunak had been photographed recently wearing Prada shoes and a £3,500 suit.
That triggered an instant backlash from several Conservative MPs.
The risk is that they are storing up trouble for whoever makes it to 10 Downing Street in September. Such is the level of invective that it appears almost impossible for either Truss or Sunak to serve in the other’s Cabinet. That will exacerbate the factionalism in the Tory party, given neither of them won the backing of more than 50% support in the final ballot of MPs last week.
In the longer term, a senior Tory MP warned that a weakened prime minister struggling to deliver a legislative program could even face a leadership challenge before the next general election, due by January 2025 at the latest.
In the meantime, the rules of the race are playing their part in the dynamics. Sunak, having won every round of balloting among Tory MPs, ran a campaign more typical of a frontrunner with few policy announcements and warnings against a radical shift in approach by the government.
With ballot papers going out to Tory members next week, Sunak’s calculation is shifting given he trails Truss in polling. One Tory watcher said Sunak has to get out on the front foot in the coming days and make a significant dent into Truss’s lead, or else he won’t have the time to overtake her.
It was the opposite scenario for Truss, who trailed throughout the MP ballots and adopted something more resembling an insurgent campaign, positioning herself as the change candidate with pledges to cut taxes immediately and whose backers were happy to publicly criticize her opponents.
But one Truss backer questioned whether she should now be engaging in spats and briefing wars. As the current frontrunner, the person said, there is little to be gained by allowing a narrative to develop that she is a dirty campaigner.
Still, there was little sign the mood was mellowing ahead of the BBC debate. Conservative minister Johnny Mercer tweeted: “The puerile nature of this leadership contest is embarrassing. Time to raise the standards.”
© 2022 Bloomberg