UK Tories fear scars of bitter leadership race will take time to heal – POLITICO
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LONDON — It’s a long-standing maxim in British politics that divided parties don’t win elections.
And so it was with some horror that politicians and supporters of Britain’s Conservative Party watched the contest to replace Boris Johnson fall into the most resentful Conservative leadership battle in decades.
Already dubbed ‘the dirtiest race in history’ on its debut amid a flurry of aggressive leaks and attacking filings, the contest has now turned into a tug of war between Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, punctuated by daily doses of vitriol hurled from either side.
« How are they going to rebuild Humpty Dumpty? » mused a worried former MP, describing the acrimony of the 2022 contest as « another level » from previous leadership races.
“If Labor had a more attractive leader and a well thought out strategy, we would be totally on target.”
In the past fortnight alone, senior Truss supporters – including serving ministers – have accused his former colleague Sunak of “socialist” and “labour” fiscal policies; of blocking growth-enhancing reforms and sporting “a murderer’s twinkling smile” when he stabbed his former boss Boris Johnson during a leadership putsch. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, a Johnson loyalist, even attacked Sunak’s £450 Prada shoes and suggested his ‘short stature’ – he is 170cm or 5ft 6in – helped ‘trick’ Conservative MPs to trust him.
For his part, Sunak described Truss’ economic plans as « fairy tales » and his broader approach to politics as « starry-eyed boosterism. » On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, a key Sunak supporter, said Truss’ approach would « unmistakably read to the public as an election suicide note ».
Such acrimony is rarely seen in British leadership races, where opponents know they must quickly unite and work together – usually around the same Cabinet table – thereafter.
Now, with more than three weeks of contests still to run, top Tories are calling for calm amid fears the rancor could have long-term implications for the party’s eligibility.
« Some of the attacks do very little justice to the people who carry them out, » said Tory colleague and longtime cabinet minister Gillian Shephard, one of Truss’s predecessors as MP for South West Norfolk.
« They have to remember that after all this, I hope there will still be a Conservative Party, » she added. « But if they continue, there may very well be no Conservative government. »
Within the campaign teams, there is little remorse.
« It’s a battle of ideas, and sometimes these things get heated, » said a Truss ally, pointing to the candidates’ contrasting positions on the economy. (Truss placed tax cuts at the center of his plan for government, which Sunak said would only fuel inflation.)
Sunak’s allies also dismissed the criticism.
« Politics is a contact sport, » said an ally of Sunak. « For God’s sake you have to put people to the test – they show up to be PM. Our first duty must be to elect the right person to lead the country.
« You can’t expect, in a one-on-one, one person to say – ‘Oh well, the other would be fine, I’d just be a little bit better,' » a supporting minister added Sunak. « You have to make them look less good than they actually are. »
Both campaign teams denied that the sweltering summer heatwave is raising temperatures further, with each operating out of chilled offices in central London. « It’s pretty friendly in there, » said a Truss supporter working with the campaign. « There is a nice air-conditioned office. »
« They tore each other apart »
But other senior Tories are less sure cool heads will prevail and doubt the party can emerge unscathed from the current acrimony.
A former political adviser feared neither candidate would be able to reunite MPs after « they tore each other apart » for nearly two months.
« They wrote Labor leaflets, » said the former aide. « Labour will raise this in Parliament and remind people that Dominic Raab said this, or so-and-so said that. »
Vehement anti-Sunak sentiment in some corners of the party will be particularly difficult to overcome if he unexpectedly wins the contest, the former adviser added.
“I think there is a lot of guilt among MPs [about the defenestration of Boris Johnson]and the way they deal with that is they project everything onto Rishi,” the former aide said, pointing out that more than 50 Tory MPs had in fact resigned from their government posts alongside Sunak to force Johnson out of power. .
A Tory MP, who quietly backed Sunak, said he was reluctant to conduct talks in public because he did not want to be drawn into the increasingly bitter blue-on-blue war.
« It’s very, very easy when you’re being interviewed, or doing an article in support of a candidate, to end up going after Liz, » the MP said. « So I kind of maintained radio silence on the matter. »
The MP warned that the division within the party would continue if the winner disappeared into « some kind of ideological underbrush », calling for a message of unity once the contest was over.
Everything depends, according to several MPs, on the ministerial appointments made by the new leader next month.
In 2019, Boris Johnson offered defeated rival Jeremy Hunt the lead role as Defense Secretary, although – viewing it as a demotion – Hunt refused to accept. In 2016 Theresa May placed her defeated rival Andrea Leadsom in her cabinet, while in 2005 David Cameron reappointed second-placed David Davis as Shadow Home Secretary, one of the longest-serving members of his team.
« I think now if it’s just ‘jobs for your homies’ it will make it difficult for the party to heal, » the Sunak-friendly MP said.
Indeed, the former adviser quoted above predicted that there could be an exodus of senior Sunak supporters in the upcoming elections if they are not offered ministerial posts.
« All these people who started out under David Cameron as junior ministers, they’re probably in their 50s, they’ll think ‘this is probably as high as I’ve gotten.’
« Some of them probably can’t do a lot of other things and don’t have discernible talents. But some of them who are lawyers, bankers, probably think – ‘I’ve got 10 good years not only for to make money, but also to do other bullshit.’
There has been widespread speculation in Westminster that former Cabinet big-hitter Sajid Javid, who launched his own failed leadership bid last month before belatedly backing Truss, could now quit Parliament in the next election – although this was strongly denied by his own team. « Sajid has absolutely no intention of stepping down, » a spokesperson said.
Many Tory MPs also expect Sunak’s most prominent supporters to see their career prospects suffer, should Truss win the contest as expected. Among them are Raab – who was criticized directly by Truss last week – former Conservative President Oliver Dowden and former Chief Whip Mark Harper.
Resurgence of Rishi?
The big question in MPs’ Whatsapp groups, however, is what happens to the conquered leadership rival.
Both Truss and Sunak have indicated that they would serve in each other’s governments, if asked. Many MPs doubt that could happen, given the acrimony – and with Truss leading the polls by a wide margin, it is Sunak’s future that is currently in the spotlight.
The Sunak-supporting MP quoted above insisted that Truss should offer – and he should accept – a job on his top team, in a mid-tier department like business or local government.
But whether Sunak is simply heading for the exit door remains a live question among colleagues.
Speculation that he could return to the US, where he owns a £5.5million beachfront penthouse in Santa Monica, to pursue a career in Silicon Valley has been rife since the former status his wife’s non-domiciled tax was revealed, and it emerged that he previously held a green card, allowing permanent residence in the United States
His supporters insist that no such option is being considered.
« He might have trouble getting his card back, » the supporting MP shrugged.