Conservative party members will not receive their ballots until next week and they have a month to make up their minds. But as far as the conventional wisdom at Westminster is concerned, the leadership contest is over before the first vote has been cast.
Polls of party members put Liz Truss ahead of Rishi Sunak by double digits and the betting markets have made her the runaway favorite with an 85 per cent chance of winning. Truss was generally agreed to be the winner of the BBC debate on Monday and the first official hustings in Leeds on Thursday.
On Friday, she won the most coveted endorsement of the contest when defense secretary Ben Wallace said she was the right choice for leader. Wallace, who was the members’ favorite for leader but chose not to stand, added emphasis to his endorsement by accusing Sunak of dereliction of duty by resigning from Boris Johnson’s cabinet.
Conservative party members have until September 2nd to return their ballots but in past elections, half of them sent them back by return of post. They can vote online if they choose and can even change their mind by sending a postal vote after voting online or vice versa and only the later vote will count.
One way or another, the next week will be crucial for Sunak if he wants to halt Truss’s momentum and make the race more competitive. If he is to succeed, the next seven days will have to be a lot better than the last.
The former chancellor of the exchequer emerged from the MPs’ stage of the contest with more votes than anyone and he performed well in early debates. But in the BBC’s head-to-head encounter with Truss, he interrupted and talked over her throughout, allowing her campaign to accuse him of “mansplaining”.
After weeks of contrasting his fiscal prudence with what he called his rival’s fairy-tale economics, Sunak this week promised to scrap VAT on energy bills for a year. He said the measure, which he denounced as unfair a few months ago, was an appropriate, one-off response to the cost-of-living crisis.
But Sunak’s proposal followed several others that sought to present him as a thoroughly right-wing conservative, including a plan to reduce the number of asylum seekers that was so extreme the Truss campaign said it was probably illegal. Sunak has also expressed support for the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, telling the hustings in Leeds that it would “fix” the agreement his government signed three years ago.
Elsewhere, however, Sunak has revealed himself to be a thoughtful, intelligent politician who was unique in Johnson’s government in having a command of detail and a clear view of the global economic environment in which Britain operates. A Brexiteer by conviction, he has ideas about how to generate economic growth through innovation and investment and by using deregulation to steal a march on the EU in a handful of high-value sectors including financial services, artificial intelligence and life sciences.
Truss, by contrast, has shifted ideologically throughout her political career but always to her own advantage. So this passionate campaigner for Remain in 2016 is now the tribune of the most hardline Eurosceptics and the keeper of the flame of True Brexit.
She has appealed to the party membership by posing as tough on crime, immigration and trans rights but demanding no economic sacrifices as she promises to borrow tens of billions of pounds to fund tax cuts.
Embittered and vengeful after his fall, Johnson is backing Truss through proxies such as Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg and she has been talking up her loyalty to him. She is his continuity candidate in other ways, mimicking his boosterish bluster about Britain while the country slides further behind its neighbors and closing her eyes to the economic cost of the hard Brexit Johnson negotiated.
Labor are confident that either candidate will lead the Conservatives to defeat at the next general election and polls suggest that Truss would lose more seats than Sunak. With a lower base of support within the parliamentary party, Truss would also face greater challenges in imposing order on her MPs.
If the polls are right, the Conservatives may have rejected Johnson but they still want to live in his world as they choose the same old chaos with a little less charisma.