FOR political parties, leadership contests can be cathartic. They can refocus the party upon core aims, facilitating a rediscovery of common purpose.

Such has frequently been the case for smaller parties in particular. The LibDems and their predecessors reinvented themselves with a change at the top, while attracting unaccustomed media attention. Ditto the SNP, before they became the prominent power in Scotland.

All political parties are coalitions of the more or less willing. Choosing a new leader requires the formation of a majority within that coalition – which requires the membership to ask themselves: what do we really want?

All potentially upbeat. However, it is highly unlikely that the current Tory leadership battle will have a positive impact for the party. For one thing, the cause of the contest.

Boris Johnson was prised from office, creeping like a snail out of Downing Street, decidedly unwillingly. Even now, there is an element of denial in his behaviour. He continues to chair Cabinet and to host meetings with puzzled delegations, while acknowledging that he has lost all power to act over anything more than short-term, minor choices.

Ludicrously, he seeks to recreate the old Boris, the comic darling of the party conference. Music-hall gags, film quotations – and a vestige of subterranean, incredible threats, aimed at those who ousted him. Presumably he will save his revenge for his memoirs and for any publication which chooses to hire him again as a pundit.


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For his potential successors, it all creates a problem. Given public views, they must disavow him and his behaviour. Yet, they served alongside him in Cabinet, urging the electorate to support him. Hence the competition between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to find a measure of distance from him.

Instead of condemning him outright – implausible, given their seniority – they try to sidestep him entirely by getting back to basics. No, not to John Major (the unfortunate wielder of that phrase). But to his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. Sunak has repeatedly declared himself to be a Thatcherite. He argued for Tory fundamentals; the small, non-interventionist state.

Truss goes further still. She decries the UK’s economic strategy of the last 20 years, portraying it as a weedy, orthodox, Treasury-driven consensus. This is a deliberate echo of the stance taken by Thatcher when she gained control of the Tories in the mid-1970s. Supported by monetarist economists and libertarians, she disowned what she saw as a suffocating consensus between Tory and Labour, sometimes known as Butskellism.

Bold stuff then – and today. Truss undoubtedly appreciates the comparison: after all, she once portrayed Margaret Thatcher in a Paisley school debate.

However, it raises two questions for the Foreign Secretary. Why did you remain in office for so long – including a spell at the Treasury – if you were so fundamentally out of step with your party and prevailing policies? Secondly, how would you afford the tax cuts you are promising when the economy is in post-pandemic peril?

Challenges, also, for Sunak. He cannot simply discard current economic policy: until very recently, he was the Chancellor. However, he has to find more persuasive language than simply decrying his rivals as peddling “fantasy economics”. Tories who have endured the grim reality of Johnson might be in the mood for a few fairy tales.

Instead, Sunak tries a modulated approach. Yes, he wants tax cuts. It is in his soul. But, like Augustine, he wants that purity of doctrine to be deferred, until inflation is more under control.

There is a further problem confronting both contenders: what appeals to party activists may not work with the electorate as a whole. It is not long until the next UK General Election. Both candidates have ruled out going to the country early. Eminently sensible, given the state of their party. However, the last possible date is Friday, the 24th of January, 2025. Realistically, we are looking at autumn or spring 2024.

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The historical portents are not particularly good. Or, rather, they are mixed when we consider those leaders who have replaced departing Prime Ministers. Yes, Johnson managed to “get Brexit done” after replacing Theresa May, gaining a convincing majority in the process. But those were, arguably, unique circumstances. Not all have been so fortunate.

Harold Macmillan replaced Anthony Eden, post-Suez, and eventually turned things round to win in 1959. But his successor, Alec Douglas-Home lost in 1964. James Callaghan succeeded the departing Harold Wilson in 1976, only to lose in 1979. Against expectations, Major won in 1992, but lost massively five years later. Gordon Brown finally replaced Tony Blair in 2007, after years of endeavour – but could not win the election in 2010.

Theresa May replaced David Cameron and thought she was on a winner against Jeremy Corbyn. She lost her overall majority. So there’s no simple pattern. What matters is individual leadership, tied to attractive policies.

Turmoil at the top is a vote loser. It has to be quelled and transformed into a focus upon the concerns of the electorate, especially with consumer confidence at a record low. Right now, the signs are less than propitious for either Tory contender. The electorate will not readily forget, while the economy continues to struggle.

And Scotland? Both contenders disdain indyref2 – although there is an absence of demonstrably new thinking. Sunak says he is the custodian of the Union; Truss says she is a “child of the Union. Neither goes much beyond that.

Labour advocates a new UK government, rather than a new Downing Street Tory tenant. The SNP says Scotland needs independence. And Scots Tories? For now, they would settle for the plea from former Scottish Secretary, David Mundell – a drama-free Prime Minister.