The election of a new leader of the Conservative Party has now descended into a farce – which would be funny if it was not for the fact that the country is facing a crisis that is going to plunge millions into real financial hardship.
It is difficult to know where to begin as both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak seek to bolster their positions with Conservative party members by entering into an auction of pledges, some of which I suspect will not see the light of day.
This contest has already been reduced to an internal referendum on the political virility of tax cuts.
Tories hate being portrayed as a high-tax party. The clear consensus among most members is that the Sunak-Johnson manifesto breaking hike in national insurance contributions has created a trust chasm between many Tory voters and the government.
Cutting taxes now is seen as a necessary first step to reversing government fortunes, which could take a further battering when the cost-of-living crisis chokes more severely towards the end of the year.
Knowing that Truss owns the tax-cutting agenda, Sunak has been left scrabbling for a strategy, having in part been buried by his own actions in government.
We are now being treated to the spectacle of the former chancellor advocating a 4p cut in tax by 2029 when a matter of weeks ago he was lecturing fellow MPs that such a course was irresponsible.
Now, Sunak will argue his positions are not inconsistent since he would only cut tax when it is prudent to do so and when economic growth delivers the headroom for reductions.
What planet is he on? Has he looked at UK growth figures? Has he looked at the projections? Does he think the geo-economic factors driving much of our current ills are going to magic themselves away?
This is desperate stuff from Sunak and an 11th–hour attempt to shore up a campaign knowing that his previous message on tax was perfectly arguable, even if it is not one a lot of Tory members want to hear.
Truss also has momentum among senior Tories who have kept their own counsel up until they could see which way the prevailing wind was blowing.
Forgive me for being cynical, but declaring your preference when you think your woman is a shoe-in really is as cynical as it is unprincipled. But hey, it happens in politics and it happens in every political party.
If Sunak is getting desperate, then Truss’s is a campaign drowning in slogans. On Ukraine, she is a ‘freedom fighter’. This one-time remainer and now a hard-line Brexiteer swats aside detailed questioning of her volte face with the line ‘maybe I’ve learnt from that’.
On net zero, she says (and I kid you not) ‘we have to reach net zero in a way that doesn’t harm businesses or customers’. There you have it. A mind of such enormous creativity that she will solve the climate crisis with nobody noticing much difference.
Of course, her campaign has been boosted by her proposals on tax which amount to reversing the hike in national insurance contributions for all taxpayers and cancelling a planned increase in corporation tax, all paid for, it would seem, by re-profiling repayments on Covid related debt.
What is singularly absent in the plans of both aspirants is a proposal to help struggling households.
By the time one of these candidates takes residence in Downing Street, fuel bills will be set to rise yet further.
The Bank of England will probably have hiked interest rates again increasing repayments for those when fixed rate deals come to an end. The continuing war in Ukraine is unlikely to offer respite to volatile markets or reduce fuel costs for motorists and households.
In this unremittingly grim story, the story of struggling Britain in 2022, both Sunak and Truss appear to have little to say except pander to the demands of their rank and file for tax cuts now.
This has all become silly, largely detached from the business of how families are increasingly being forced to make tough spending choices, the kind which does not appear to trouble either of these candidates in their proposed stewardship of the UK household.
The greatest factor in politics to bury a cliché, kick a pledge into touch and jab a delusion is reality.
Reality, that world of inconvenience which forces upon a political leader a course of action, and which renders impotence the folly of their own on-the-hoof policy making.
The new Prime Minister will have the most challenging baptism of fire imaginable. Some strikes will have settled, others will start, but the feeling of a country in drift with no-one in charge will persist.
As the winter chills and the fuel bills become unpayable, the rhetoric of this leadership contest will be shown up for what it is: a debate about the interests of the Conservative party and not one that addresses the needs of struggling voters.
But Truss or Sunak will be forced to act, for no Prime Minister can be seen to be aloof to a tsunami of public anger.
The end game of a squabble about tax cuts, net zero, equality legislation and ‘wokeism’ may obsess a class of activist and have the right-wing commentariat frothing at the mouth in indignation about socialism’s all-pervasive destructiveness.
When they all calm down, they will realise how silly this contest has been. They will realise it has been dominated by the wrong agenda.
This government will stand or fall by its management of the cost-of-living crisis. It will require leadership skills I doubt either of these candidates possesses.