Whoever wins Tory leadership race, this is a shift to the right

Bernard Ponsonby says the prevailing mood of the Tories shows the party has made a shift towards the right.

Bernard Ponsonby insight: Tory leadership races shows shift to the right in Conservative party STV NewsFlickr

That Jeremy Hunt, a man who made the run off against Boris Johnson in 2019, finished bottom of the poll in yesterday’s ballot tells you a lot about the prevailing mood of Tory MPs.

He was a remainer who stood outside the current frenzy among most of the other candidates for cutting income tax at a time when the nations indebtedness is the biggest since the Second World War.

Add to that he has had held senior cabinet positions including the post of foreign secretary, his miserable tally of just 18 votes tells you that this middle-of-the-road Tory just got run over by that Brexit bus containing, it seems, the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs.

The other candidate sceptical about tax cuts now, the former chancellor Rishi Sunak, topped the poll. The charge to prevent him landing one of the two top spots that will ensure he goes forward to the ballot of all Conservative Party members is well under way and it is being led by the Daily Mail.

Treachery is the charge against Sunak. That his campaign was launched with an almost indecent haste after Boris Johnson’s resignation is evidence that he is a baby faced assassin, his critics say.

The charge sheet is also wider. He owns the high tax agenda which so embarrasses rank and file Tories and by refusing to u-turn on the subject will endow his party with a legacy that will hound them at the next election.

Sunak might have resigned as chancellor but he is a prisoner of his time at Number 11. Arguing for tax cutting would have been seen as taking hypocrisy and self serving careerism to risible levels. He had no option but to stick with the policies he introduced and defended even if they are his Achilles heel in this race.

More broadly, the One Nation tradition, such a resonant part of the party’s history appears utterly absent from this contest. It is yet another piece of evidence that the centre of gravity has shifted to the right.

We are now at the stage in this contest where those who have performed well but cannot win – Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and Tom Tugenhadt – will be thinking which one of the big three they will back if, as expected, they will be eliminated in subsequent rounds of voting.

Jeremy Hunt has already backed Sunak. The problem is that Operation Stop Rishi is now well under way. Being the front runner too early has the effect of conducting a tactical vote in subsequent rounds to ensure ultimate failure.

Even if Sunak becomes one of the final two it’s unlikely that his defence of his tax plans will cut it with the grassroots. He is a prisoner of his record and it is his record that grates with many members.

If he does triumph, there are huge questions over his political judgement. He had to change course on furlough having announced repeatedly it was ending and pivoted on the national insurance hike.

There is evidence that Sunak has suspect anntenae, which, allied to his super wealthy status in an age of impoverishment would make him a good leader from Labour’s point of view.

The mainstream analysis – which I share – is that momentum is with Penny Mourdant. She benefits from having a lower profile in the Johnson cabinet and her reputation is therefore less soiled than that of Sunak.

What will be key in deciding who enters the run off is what happens to the votes of the candidates who will drop out after today’s round of voting. In the trading that will follow it is not as simple as assuming that the supporters of a defeated candidate will transfer en bloc to another rival.

Assuming that the final three will be Sunk, Mordant and Truss it is difficult to imaging that the votes currently going to Braverman and Badenoch will swing behind the former chancellor although he might pick up support from those currently backing Tom Tugenhadt. The margins therefore between the final three candidates might be quite tight.

This contest has been fought in a policy vacuum with absolutely nothing being said on the elephant in the room: how will they fix the cost of living crisis. The next election will be decided on that issue, not on the finer points of which candidate is going to deliver a smaller state.

Online polls among the Tory faithful put Mourdant in the lead. A word of caution on that front. These surveys reflect the views of the more digitally engaged Conservative party member and are not necessarily reflective of the wider membership. That being said they do all seem to confirm that Sunak is unlikely to win should he make the final two.

All of this in one sense is supremely irrelevant to the country. Introspective naval gazing about what is good for the Conservative party is not going to transform the lives of those who are struggling.

The new leader will become Prime Minister in September, just a month before energy bills rocket even further and the numbers in fuel poverty reach more than ten million.

The new PM will have to deal with a perfect storm of issues. The crisis in governing, a toxic legacy from the Johnson era. A summer of industrial discontent. A cost of living crisis that gets worse with every passing month.

Unless the new leader can address these issues, there will be a very real prospect that their tenure in Downing Street will be even shorter than the man they are about to replace.

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