Conservative leadership race: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak need to call a ceasefire or political oblivion awaits – John McLellan

With two Conservative leadership candidates alternatively arguing for high tax or unfunded spending commitments and a Labour leader sacking a minister for clearly supporting affiliated unions on strike, maybe there are only two certainties left in British politics: that the SNP still wants to split the United Kingdom and no-one knows what the Lib Dems stand for.

Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak need to think about the ammunition they are giving to Labour (Picture: Jacob King/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak need to think about the ammunition they are giving to Labour (Picture: Jacob King/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

What is a poor voter to think? At least it now looks like the public has perhaps a year before they must pass judgement in a general election, probably 18 months – barely enough time for the new Prime Minister to turn the promises of the current fractious Conservative tussle into tangible results, or for Sir Keir Starmer to convince the electorate he can deliver a plan for the following five years.

It’s easy for those with short or lazy memories to focus on the lack of puff at the end of John Major’s premiership as the reason for the 1997 Labour landslide, but that would ignore both the gloss and promise of the Blair-Brown programme and the improving economic fortunes they inherited. The public felt confident things were on the up.

Even if they don’t agree on causes or remedies, all parties are unanimous things are very definitely not on the up, and the opposition parties in Westminster are united in leaving it to the Conservatives to produce answers, knowing none are easy and the worse things get, the better their chances of ending this Tory era.

As this leadership contest goes on, the opposition parties are amassing more ammunition than the Ukrainian artillery. While there is no question Boris Johnson was solely responsible for his downfall, his plea that now was not the time for a leadership contest was not wide of the mark. But the inevitability of such an increasingly bitter contest at a time of national crisis should be another charge on the Johnson rap sheet.

From a Conservative point of view, from now on it should be incumbent on both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to demonstrate the leadership qualities they both claim to possess by not only displaying personal discipline in the way they present their views by not attacking each other, but by issuing clear and strict instructions to their camps that personal attacks and pejorative criticism are off limits.

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It should be possible for the campaigns to say their candidate has the right approach to get the country on track without suggesting the other is immoral, a spendthrift, an out-of-touch moneybags or whatever.

What does team Sunak do if August has been spent castigating the new Prime Minister’s “economic illiteracy”? And if Liz Truss wants to show she really has what it takes to lead, she should side-line Nadine Dorries, not just for repeating damaging attacks on a fellow Conservative’s appearance, but for not seeing the obvious advantage it hands to the opposition.

It’s looking increasingly unlikely, but if on September 5 Prime Minister Sunak gets down to assembling a team to fight the cost-of-living crisis and the next general election, Ms Dorries would be listening to Labour and the SNP parroting her attack lines.

With members’ favourite Ben Wallace backing Liz Truss, the contest could become a procession, and while it may be a forlorn hope, now might be the time for eyes to turn to September 6 and call a truce in which the rest of this process is about how best to convey a proper Conservative message, and that some sort of agreement can be reached about basic principles, so voters get a clear sense of direction and purpose, rather than the corrosive acrimony currently being served up daily on television and social media.

Taxation must come down, and the energy crisis addressed, especially for the vulnerable, but if the absence of a magic money tree and the need to keep inflation under control are also givens, squaring the two with agreed timescales is badly needed.

It’s true the economy can still thrive with much higher interest rates ─ before the 2008 banking crash it was 5.7 per cent ─ but the impact of a sudden return to those kind of levels after 15 years of rock-bottom mortgage rates would be catastrophic for millions of people.

And by now both sides must see the political danger of a massive spending splurge undermining the core Conservative reputation for financial responsibility. Why vote for Tory profligacy when you can get the real thing with Labour?

By the same token, Liz Truss’s argument that economic orthodoxies need re-examining is capturing the membership’s support because the promise is lower taxation, so how does the Sunak camp reconcile itself to the reality it faces?

That the pandemic needed a wartime response was unquestioned and Rishi Sunak produced it with aplomb, and although rebalancing the books is unarguable, the Ukraine War has ripped up the repayment plan and the wartime response now has a real war, the effect of which will last for years.

The candidates urgently need their own ceasefire, to agree a broad vision for what the new orthodoxy might look like, what represents low taxation, and, crucially, what shape public services might take in the future.

A rapidly ageing population ramping up pressure on a broken NHS – the urgent reform of which politicians of all stripes avoid like the, well, plague – should top the list. At least the SNP can show what stagnation really looks like, with excess deaths in Scotland the UK’s highest, and drug deaths an indelible stain on Ms Sturgeon’s inflated reputation.

In the five weeks remaining, both leadership candidates need to show the grip of statecraft befitting a global leader and if that means making concessions to the other side, so be it, even if the remaining hustings become a formality. If they do not, the prize will be instant oblivion for the loser and the winner spending less time in Number 10 than Gordon Brown. And then oblivion.

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