The hustings for the British prime ministerial candidates are quite surreal. The election comes down to some 160,000 Tory party members which makes their identity a matter of national importance. Yet the people of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England know nothing about them beyond the fact that they are roughly the same crew who have produced three leaders in six years and remain peculiarly aroused by Boris Johnson.
The Conservative and Unionist party – to give it its official title – refuses to provide any information about them, not even the number. It might be 160,000 and it might not. Any information on their make-up is gleaned from a 2½-year-old academic study which polled some 4,000 of them. It found that two-thirds were male, nearly seven in 10 were over 50 and – for all their gloating about diversity around the cabinet table – just four in 100 were people of colour.
The only way to catch them in the flesh, as the media have discovered, is to ambush them in their orderly queues outside the hustings venues. In tone and appearance they conform in every respect to the study findings. As the Economist’s reporter put it, it might be mistaken for a queue for Marylebone Cricket Club or perhaps an upmarket prostate clinic. Lots of linen, Panama hats and pink trousers, white hair, bald heads and a lurking suspicion that someone in the vicinity might bear the title “major”. The few women present were unwilling to speak to a journalist, “scattering like startled fish when approached and proffering their husbands as spokesperson instead”.
Her genius or cunning was to recognise his electability as leader followed by the inevitable blow-up that would lead to the current vacancy
In fairness, vox pops or a self-selected sprinkling are never a satisfactory means of conducting research but in the absence of any sense of accountability or basic information from the party it’s all there is. And depending on your perspective it is an improvement on former Tory prime minister Edward Heath’s despairing conclusion when he divided the party into three categories – “shits, bloody shits and f**king shits”. How much or how little the party has adapted since Heath’s heyday in the 1970s is unclear.
All we know is that the system has produced a runaway victory for Liz Truss if a recent YouGov poll is even remotely correct. How they managed to poll the party membership is unclear, but it put her support at a staggering 58 per cent over Rishi Sunak at 29 per cent. It’s an extraordinary turnaround; back in January Sunak was the one in the lead by a hefty 28 per cent.
Though often described as the party members’ darling, mainly on foot of the ConservativeHome members’ poll which had named her their favourite minister for months, they couldn’t quite envision her as prime ministerial material when it came down to it, apparently. Yet here she is, the prime minister-apparent.
Apart from some bother about Sunak’s US green card and his wife’s tax affairs, the big political event in the meantime, of course, was the ousting of Johnson, her hero. Her genius or cunning was to recognise his electability as leader followed by the inevitable blow-up that would lead to the current vacancy.
She became his first cabinet backer when he was struggling, went on Radio 4 to defend him on everything from his extramarital affairs to the Iranian incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and – nauseatingly – instantly named him her favourite foreign secretary from history when asked at the Tory party conference last year.
She went to the bunker with him when his generals, led by Sunak, were deserting in droves. and she remained with him to the bitter end, repeating robotically that he “admitted he made mistakes... He got all the big calls right: Brexit, vaccines, Ukraine.” She had and has no issue with his lies and law-breaking.
The reason behind the membership’s shift is black and white: Sunak the stone cold assassin versus Truss the loyalist. As the members use the hustings to snarl and grumble about the “treachery” that brought Johnson down, the obvious inference is that he did nothing wrong. It was Sunak who betrayed them all. It’s the classic career-over-country position that drives normal people to despair.
Yet way back in January the talk was that Truss had begun her leadership campaign months before, openly courting MPs at “fizz with Liz” social events – just as Johnson did in his leadership run. Her campaign shtick is tax cuts, freedom and unleashing the market. She relies on Patrick Minford – who once argued that the NHS “cruelly constrained” private health providers – as her go-to economist, Baron Frost as an adviser and Instagram for relentless posing, all laced with nonsensical mantras such as “what you see is what you get” and “I’m a conviction politician”.
She is an opportunist extraordinaire, one who batted persuasively for Remain when it appeared to be the winning side, then did a hard reverse knowing she could only succeed in the new regime by amplifying the lies.
Which brings us back to that tiny, ageing, insular membership of the Conservative and Unionist party with their grudge matches and unfeasibly swooning devotion to Johnson, the people most likely to have voted for Brexit but who don’t want to talk about it. The people now entrusted with guiding the UK back to sanity.