Tory hopefuls swerve right as race to replace Boris Johnson heats up – POLITICO

LONDON — Boris Johnson may be (almost) gone, but British politics show few signs of shifting to the center anytime soon.

As the Prime Minister licked his wounds at his official Checkers residence after a dramatic week in which once-loyal colleagues forced him to resign as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister, a crowded group of candidates seeking to replace him began courting their electorate.

So far, they largely offer a heady mix of tax-cutting, wake-up call and Brexit support policies that will be familiar enough to followers of British politics under Johnson.

Tory lawmakers seeking to land the top job will first have to convince their fellow MPs, who are being asked to choose the final two candidates before rank-and-file members of the party pick a winner from that pair. Tory bosses are meeting on Monday evening to set the timetable for the competition, which could stretch throughout the summer.

Johnson himself remains in charge as the contest unfolds, but those hoping for a centrist tilt once he leaves could be left on hold. A former Tory MP said of the Tory lawmakers: ‘I think they were so determined to get rid of Boris…that they didn’t really think about: what next?

About Europe

The Conservatives are far from feeling the remorse of Brexit buyers according to the leadership race.

Even Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier who has led parliament’s scrutiny of Johnson’s foreign policy since 2020 and is seen as a moderate, has made it clear he will continue to push for a post-Brexit bill. controversial to undo parts of the laboriously negotiated trade protocol. rules in Northern Ireland.

It’s a plan that under Johnson has drawn real ire from the EU, but no candidate has yet said they would put the legislation on hold.

The other top moderate hopeful, Jeremy Hunt – a former foreign secretary beaten by Johnson in the 2019 race to replace Theresa May – announced on Sunday he would make Esther McVey his deputy if he wins. McVey is one of Parliament’s most ardent Brexiteers and has long pissed off leftists.

UK Attorney General Suella Braverman has said she will go further and take Britain out of the equation completely. European convention of human rights (ECHR) – the long-standing international convention designed to protect human rights and political freedoms in Europe – in a bid to push through Britain’s suspended plan to deport asylum seekers to the Rwanda.

About tax

But Britain’s place in the world has so far been a relative sideshow as candidates race to promise Margaret Thatcher-style tax cuts even as the UK grapples with galloping inflation.

The first bonfire is a hike in National Insurance, an employment tax that rose 1.25 percentage points in April in a bid to increase health care spending, but has drawn the ire of Conservative MPs who believe it is hitting families and businesses when they need it least.

It has already put one candidate in a somewhat awkward position – former Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who pushed for more National Health Service spending as the man heading the health department, has now promised to remove the levy. Allies of Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who was due to declare her candidacy on Monday, reported similar rumors in the Sunday papers.

Hunt and Javid also promised to put a planned corporate tax hike on hold.

Some Westminster watchers are skeptical, and the pledges come after early frontrunner and former top finance minister Rishi Sunak warned against ‘fairytale’ pledges to cut taxes while keeping spending high.

« To say you’re going to produce tax cuts at this point – given the state of the economy, inflation and everything else – I think that’s, to say the least, a guess. brave, » said the former MP quoted above.

Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank, warned sunday that the UK will still have to spend far more on its National Health Service, social care and pension obligations in the future, which means either tax hikes or a ‘real response plan’ major surgery in some parts of [the] Welfare state. » No such plan has yet been presented, with the candidates promising detailed costs further down the track or pointing to unnamed efficiencies that can be made in running the government itself.

Still, some are at least happy that there is an ongoing economic debate. Business groups have had a sometimes rocky relationship with the Conservative Party in recent years over Brexit and tax, and there is some enthusiasm at the occasion to talk about tax after months of tumult.

Craig Beaumont, head of policy at the Federation of Small Businesses, predicts Tory candidates ‘will be bubbling with ideas’ and said it was ‘refreshing’ that the Tory debate kicked off with hopefuls trying to outbid each other on tax. He has long criticized the National Insurance hike and called for more help for small businesses struggling with rising energy costs. « We’ve already seen a whole day today … all about where everyone stands on taxes, » he said. « And that’s great. »

On the « culture wars »

Under Johnson, conservatives have dipped their toes in the water of the so-called culture wars debates, with periodic interventions on hot-button issues like transgender rights and the fate of statues commemorating slave traders.

In a clear sign that those rows will continue to burst as top Tories try to win the party over, Sunak – used to rising above the fray as Westminster’s money man – chose to launch his campaign with rare identity intervention: An ‘unnamed’ Sunak ally was quoted in the Mail on Sunday criticizing ‘tendencies to erase women via the use of awkward, gender-neutral language’.

Several other candidates have also entered the fray, although others, like Tugendhat and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, are clear and urge respect.

Former equality minister Kemi Badenoch has made a big deal of her opposition to socially liberal language and policies, calling ‘zero-sum identity politics’ a ‘debate closure’ in a Sunday Times article . Meanwhile, Braverman stressed on Sunday evening the importance of a fight to ensure that legislation allowing her to take maternity leave refers to a woman rather than a « pregnant person ».

What happens next?

As the Tories squabble over the future, Johnson himself is staying put – for now.

It’s not unusual for defenestrated prime ministers to stay while the race to replace them unfolds, but such was the anger towards Johnson that there were rumors MPs might try to finish the job early.

Yet those calls for Johnson to step down immediately have largely died down, according to a former cabinet minister who took the temperature of party loyalists.

Westminster now has a ‘temporary and functioning government’, the ex-minister added, although he warned those Johnson has appointed to Cabinet in the meantime not ‘to do anything stupid’.

“They need to keep things pretty tight and keep the ship neutral until September,” he said, referring to the likely time frame for the race to end.

Instead, MPs and activists turn their attention to what comes next.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown – treasurer of the 1922 Committee of Deputies who holds the pen on Tory leadership rules – told LBC Radio on Sunday he was « absolutely confident » the contest will be narrowed down to two candidates by July 20, although it’s still unclear how long activists will be given to quiz and then vote on the winner of a two-candidate final.

While others are less than thrilled at the prospect of an interminable Conservative bidding war, Beaumont argued that a proper contest, rather than a coronation, could help weed out bad political ideas as the journalists, fellow MPs and business groups have the chance to dig into the details.

« If someone comes out now with a promise that actually when you really dig doesn’t work – it will come out, » he said.

Matt Honeycombe-Foster contributed reporting.

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