The Irish Times view on the British Conservative Party: at a remove from reality

A visit to Belfast by the two candidates to replace Boris Johnson offered few encouraging signs

The bizarre nature of the British Conservative Party leadership contest is perhaps best reflected in a recent poll which suggests that nearly half the party members would vote to keep Boris Johnson in preference to either contender. Some 40 per cent would vote for Johnson to continue in office, 28 per cent would support foreign secretary Liz Truss and only 23 per cent would back former chancellor Rishi Sunak. Of the two candidates actually in the running for the position, Truss is running away with it. According to a poll by the Conservative Home website, she holds a 34 percentage point lead over Sunak.

For the 200 Northern Ireland Conservative Party members who attended Wednesday’s hustings in Belfast, the sense of a contest peripheral to the challenges of the real world was emphasised by the audience’s need to prompt the two candidates into addressing the North’s most pressing political issue – the DUP boycott of the executive. Truss’s insistence that all would be well once her Northern Ireland Protocol Bill passed through parliament was hardly reassuring; the DUP has singularly failed so far to take her bait and show any inclination to return to the executive.

For understandable reasons they do not trust Tory assurances that the process will be seen through and the protocol suspended. Truss, who also insisted, contrary to most legal opinion, that the protocol Bill, which will allow parts of the withdrawal treaty to be repudiated unilaterally, is “absolutely legal”, again spoke of how she would “unlock the opportunities of Brexit”. It is an empty formula which will have rung hollow with the North’s remainder majority and those many businesses that are seizing the rather more concrete opportunity of access to both the EU and UK single markets.

Sunak gave no comfort to the sceptical, assuring party members there is “probably not an enormous amount of disagreement” between the rivals on the protocol, let alone the union. The banging of the unionist drum plays well with the rank and file. In Scotland two days previously Sunak had pledged to do “anything and everything” to preserve the union and both candidates made clear they would have no truck with another independence referendum within a generation. Truss referred sneeringly to Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon as an “attention seeker”.

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In the end, what matters most to both candidates is clearly not their standing in Belfast or Edinburgh but among the loyal English core of the party, currently preoccupied with prices and the economy. On these there are clear policy differences between the two – Sunak has promised a Thatcherite agenda of reforms, while Truss has pinned her hopes on the well-tested, fallacious theory that tax cuts would have powerful effects on stimulating investment and labour supply.