The Irish Times view on the UK Conservative Party leadership: a party unsure what it stands for

The choice facing Conservative members over coming weeks is becoming clearer if not necessarily more appealing

Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch, Rishi Sunak, Tom Tugendhat remain in the running for the UK Conservative Party leadership. Photograph: Getty Images

When Sajid Javid ran for the UK Conservative party leadership in 2019, one of his most compelling points of distinction was his background as the child of Pakistani immigrants who arrived in Britain penniless in the 1960s. This time around, in the party’s contest to succeed Boris Johnson, ethnic diversity is the norm. Of eight candidates who put their names forward, four – Nadhim Zahawi, Rishi Sunak, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman – were children of immigrants. Sunak, the frontrunner, has made his origin story a centrepiece of his campaign. Even if none of this can mask the increasingly cold environment immigrants and asylum seekers face in Britain – indeed, because of policies implemented by second-generation immigrants such as interior minister Priti Patel – that diversity has been a rare bright spot in an otherwise dispiriting election.

With five candidates remaining and three of those – Sunak, Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt – breaking away from the pack, the choice facing Conservative Party members over coming weeks is becoming clearer if not necessarily more appealing. There are important distinctions between them, certainly. Sunak, with the strongest credentials for economic management and administrative competence, is the closest thing to an establishment candidate.

Truss, an ineffectual foreign minister who campaigned against Brexit and then cheered it, is the standard-bearer for the Tory right and has the support of Johnson’s closest allies. Mordaunt, a naval reservist who enjoys being photographed with the Union Jack but is also liberal on social questions, sits somewhere in the middle.

Most remarkable is how little separates the candidates on policy, however. Under Johnson, the party’s economic and cultural outlook moved to the right. Its new centre of gravity drags all ambitious candidates towards a narrow small-state, low-tax, nationalist position. Where individuals diverge even slightly from that consensus – as Sunak does by proposing tax cuts only after inflation has been brought under control, or Mordaunt does by declining to rail against trans rights – they make up for it by embracing other elements of the party’s new dogma. All would retain the law-breaking Bill to repudiate the Northern Ireland protocol. All would pursue the outrageous policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. It is telling how, more than two years after the UK left the European Union, the pledge to “deliver on Brexit” remains one of the recurring themes of the leadership campaign.

READ MORE

Rather than signalling recognition that Brexit has made Britain worse off and more isolated and needs to be mitigated, however, this emphasis merely indicates how, having achieved its core ideological wish, the Conservative Party is struggling to know what it stands for.