Blog: Britain’s Next Prime Minister Will Have to Be a True Believer – The Atlantic

This is a long, hot summer in Britain, and 150,000 people are choosing our next prime minister.

One candidate is charmlessly patrician, full to bursting with clever, informed answers. The other talks about “challenging the orthodoxy”—a fancier version of “draining the swamp”—and is accused of denying reality. Care to make a bet on who will win?

Last week, the race to succeed Boris Johnson narrowed to two candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. They will spend the summer appealing to the only people with a vote—Conservative Party members, who will register their choice by mail or online—before the result is announced on September 5. How many of these powerful electors are there? The most common estimate is 150,000, equivalent to 0.2 percent of the British population, but no one outside the party knows for sure, because the Tories won’t give out hard numbers on the size of their membership. The next prime minister could be decided by the votes of 1 million people. Or by three dogs in a trench coat. We just have to trust them, whoever they are.

If this sounds like a bad system, it is. This is the second time in six years that the Conservative Party has toppled a prime minister and chosen a successor without consulting the wider electorate. In American terms, this summer’s contest between Truss and Sunak is a primary without a subsequent election—a recipe for candidates to pander to the prejudices and obsessions of a minority, without worrying too much about the judgment of the majority. The next nationwide ballot is not expected until at least 2024.

When the United States allows a few hundred thousand people to decide an election, at least it asks them to live in Michigan or Wisconsin. The Conservative Party membership is more geographically diverse, but it is equally unrepresentative of the entire United Kingdom. “Older, well-off, white southerners may be a wee bit of a caricature, but it isn’t so very far from the truth,” Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, recently told the Financial Times. These voters are more economically secure than the average Briton, given that homeownership rates rise with age, and less bothered by rising interest rates, since many have paid off their mortgage. They are therefore less likely to feel a sense of impending economic doom than low-income, working-age people are.

They are also much more likely to have voted to leave the European Union. You might expect that to improve the chances of Rishi Sunak—a Brexiteer—over Liz Truss, who voted to Remain. Truss even made one of the standout speeches of the 2016 campaign, arguing that “less trade would mean fewer investments, it would mean fewer jobs, and that will feed through to people’s incomes … I think the British people are sensible people. They understand, fundamentally, that economically Britain would be better off staying in a reformed EU.”

But since 2016, Truss has stealthily accomplished one of the great rebrands of modern politics. She has become a born-again Brexiteer, displaying all the zeal of the convert. Her campaign for the leadership has leaned hard on her ability to seize the “opportunities” available outside the EU, first as trade minister and then as foreign secretary. So how great are these opportunities? And how impressive is her record of capitalizing on them? Let me answer by telling you that one of her supporters, Thérèse Coffey, offered up the reintroduction of beavers—yes, big teeth, build dams, those beavers—as one of Truss’s biggest achievements in government. Big whoop. Rishi Sunak, a wealthy former financier, could beat this record in an afternoon if he wanted, simply by obtaining three dozen eagles on the black market and releasing them in his back garden.

So far, every poll of Conservative members puts Truss ahead of Sunak. Her greater appeal to Tory members has several potential explanations, although none of the obvious ones are immediately convincing. (One pollster privately confessed to me that he struggles to see what Tory members love so much about Truss.) Sunak quit Boris Johnson’s government, helping to bring it down, while Truss kept the faith. Maybe Conservative members value loyalty. Sunak won’t promise immediate tax cuts to voters struggling with rising prices and energy bills; Truss wants at least £30 billion of them. Maybe Conservative members think lower taxes are the best route to economic growth, and reject Sunak’s argument that true conservatism means discipline and prudence. Sunak went to an expensive private boarding school and Truss attended a state-funded school. Maybe Conservatives dislike privilege—but then again, Sunak’s parents were immigrants to Britain, and both candidates attended Oxford University. None of these explanations quite fits.

What Conservative members certainly are not looking for is the slickest or most alpha candidate. Both Truss and Sunak are sort of dweeby. There is probably no good way for a politician to boast in a speech that they are “opening up new pork markets,” but Truss’s self-satisfied smile after doing so has become a haunting meme. Sunak, meanwhile, is fastidious and obsessive; he always reminds me of Niles Crane from Frasier. He once handed out coasters to journalists because their sweaty drinks were too distracting, and he limits himself to one Coca-Cola a week, “as a Saturday night treat with his wife.” That wife, by the way, is an Indian telecommunications heiress who’s even richer than Maris Crane.

That leaves Brexit, which is now less a policy than a vibe. Boris Johnson associated Brexit with his own boosterism—making Britain great again!—and that association has stuck. No Negative Nellies or Cautious Colins will be tolerated. Any politician who warns, as Sunak has done, that the country’s finances are still battered by COVID-19, and that more economic pain is on the way, is now seen in some miasmic, indefinable way as betraying the promise of Brexit. Things were supposed to get better once we left the EU, after all, and since an estimated three-quarters of the voters in this contest are Brexiteers, they do not want to be told they bought a lemon. Truss’s born-again Brexitism is more flattering: She says now that she would vote Leave if the referendum were held again. In other words, yes, she was once a doubter, but she has changed. And there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 just men who need no repentance.

The power of Truss’s conversion was obvious at the debate between her and Sunak, which was hosted by the BBC in the Midlands city of Stoke-on-Trent on Monday night. The audience was made up of Conservative members, and the difference from previous crowds was stark. In Channel 4’s earlier debate, with an audience drawn from across the electorate, the general consensus was that Johnson was a bounder, a cad, and a mountebank, and that anyone who stayed in his cabinet was tainted by association. The Conservative members in Stoke responded differently. When Truss rated Johnson’s time in office “seven out of 10,” the audience barely stirred. When Sunak was asked the same question, he first equivocated on Johnson’s broader record and was greeted by silence. Then he declared, “Actually, in delivering a solution to Brexit, and winning an election, that’s a 10 out of 10. You’ve got to give the guy credit for that. No one else could have done that.” Those lines drew the biggest applause of the night. In short, this race for the Conservative leadership leaves no space for a balanced appraisal of Brexit—that Britain obtained greater control over immigration and trade policy at the price of an Irish border crisis, more friction in trade, and the loss of other rights. No, it has to be all upside. Boris Johnson won bigly, and his triumph was glorious.

This sentiment made another appearance in Stoke when the host, Sophie Raworth, asked both candidates whether the recent chaos at British ports—which left families heading to France stuck in gridlocked traffic for hours last weekend—was caused by Brexit. “No,” they said in unison. But why is France now stamping the passports of Britons heading off to camping trips in Brittany, when once it waved them through? Because when Britain “took back control” of its borders, so did France. And even if the French are not employing enough border officials, as Johnson’s government asserts, what recourse does a Britain outside the EU have except to whine about it? But again, any criticism of Brexit is forbidden; blame the French instead. Reality denial is now the price of leading the Conservative Party.

Overall, it was a bad debate for Sunak, who pushed Truss hard on her tax plans and frequently interrupted her during the first questions. Afterward, a Truss-campaign spokesperson accused him of “mansplaining.” Fighting words, though Sunak’s mistake was more damaging than casual sexism. He was orthodoxysplaining.

Sunak is clearly aware of his image problem: He constantly stresses his middle-class background, and whenever he is asked about climate change, he claims to “take advice from my two young daughters, who are the experts on this in our household.” This is just as odd as the time Elizabeth Warren promised to let a 9-year-old vet her candidates for education secretary. Both statements spring from the same impulse of trying to look folksy and authentic rather than pointy-headed and elitist.

Nice try, but so far it’s not working for Sunak. A snap poll by Opinium found that a random sample of voters declared the debate to be a draw, and that Sunak had a small lead on the question of who would make the better prime minister. But among Conservative voters, the winner was clear: Liz Truss. On the British right, just like in America, a born-again believer is more appealing than the avatar of elite consensus, the credentialed insider, the man saying he’s from the government and he’s here to help.

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