Photo courtesy ITV News
Mick may be aiming at higher things but I’m stuck down low and dirty in the Tory leadership contest. I can’t take my eyes off it. Unusually the written press are ahead of TV thanks to social media with lots of talk about black propaganda, stalking horses and dirty dealing behind the scenes. So the first leadership debate on Channel 4 last night came as a welcome relief. Despite overheated claims in the press that the candidates were tearing themselves apart, this was no shouting match but a series of measured Q&As, enlivened by basic disagreements over trans rights and the economy.
Now you might say that TV reduces complicated issues to sound bites. But here it worked well, to clarify the issues and allow us to judge which of the candidates were comfortable in their own skin. Across both Rishi Sunak was the only game in town. The economic choice can be summed up in a single electric exchange between him and the Johnson continuity candidate, the desperately robotic Liz Truss. She was promising tax cuts of £30 billion immediately amounting to 3k per household and scrapping the projected national insurance rise, the spending gap to be filled she implied, by more borrowing.
Sunak cut across her: “You cannot borrow your way out of inflation, Liz. It’s a fairy tale” This I predict is the quote that will in the end destroy Truss’s faltering campaign. It should jolt the Tory electorate into reality.
Pressed later on the immediate problem of facing fuel bills of up to 2k a year in the autumn. Sunak dwelt on the increase in bills of 1.2 k – and that is the extra amount eligible people will be receiving in the autumn. It was left to an otherwise muddled Mordaunt to blurt out a hesitant challenge to the ex-chancellor’s confident authority : “ we’ll have to do more for people in the autumn. “
Much has been made of the fact that the candidates were pitching to different audiences: first to the MPs, then the wider party and finally the voters. I doubt if the calculations will be very different. They will want to pick someone who looks like a winner.. By the only measure that matters, that’s Sunak, never mind the instant polling on TV performance or zero levels of trust. Sunak stands alone with enough authority to recast the government with the blight of Boris removed. Ths doesn’t mean he would be invulnerable to further pressure on fuel prices in the autumn as he was on furlough payments
Attention will soon focus on the party in the country. Is it really full of swivelled eyed Brexit fanatics or closer to the broad church of old? An encouraging factor is the racial and gender diversity of the candidates. The single white British male Tugendhat, although he topped a general snap poll, is likely to be thrown out on Monday. More alarming is candidates’ emphasis on the appeal of individual responsibility to price your way out of poverty and the degree of faith in cutting taxes and a small state. Badenoch, brought up in Nigeria talks like this with a passion that makes the typical white Conservative male sound jaded. But it makes no sense at all to millions of people, faced with the current crises in living standards and NHS performance, whose votes the Tories will need.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London