DAN HODGES: It’s been a divisive eight weeks. But this contest has served Liz Truss – and the nation – well
‘She wanted it to end weeks ago,’ an ally told me. ‘She’s desperate to get into Downing Street and get working.
‘That’s why she basically stopped campaigning halfway through August. All she’s done is the final hustings.
‘For the last three weeks she’s been locked in Chevening [the Foreign Secretary’s grace-and-favour mansion] finalising the Cabinet and working on policy.’
If you think you’re sick of the Tory leadership election, spare a thought for Liz Truss – according to one ally, ‘she wanted it to end weeks ago’
Some of Truss’s allies point the finger at Rishi Sunak, accusing him of needlessly dragging out a contest to which he’d effectively become a bystander.
But the bulk of their anger is directed towards 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady, who drew up the exhaustive – and exhausting – timetable.
‘It’s unbelievable how thick Graham Brady is,’ one Minister raged. ‘This whole thing could have been wrapped up in a month.’ Instead, it wraps tomorrow.
At lunchtime, Liz Truss will be pronounced leader of the Conservative Party. Then on Tuesday she will fly to Balmoral, where she will be invited to become the 56th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the 15th of Her Majesty’s remarkable reign.
And it’s at this point she will start trying to counter the toxic legacy of the most poisonous leadership election in modern political history.
An incoming PM is normally granted a honeymoon. Truss will be lucky if she gets the chance to unpack the blender from the in-laws.
Even before she walks across the threshold of No10, the attempt to define her premiership is under way – amid framing that is directly linked to the eight weeks of summer it took to choose Boris Johnson’s successor.
One fashionable argument is that the contest shouldn’t have happened at all. Over the past couple of weeks some Tory MPs are reported to be in the grip of ‘seller’s remorse’ over the ousting of Boris.
A few are even said to be discussing whether or not to launch a pre-emptive strike on their not-yet-elected leader, immediately submitting no confidence letters in Truss and begging Boris to return.
Setting aside the fact that such people should be sitting in heavily padded cells, rather than on the benches of the House of Commons, their attempt at historic revisionism needs to be countered.
On Monday lunchtime, Liz Truss will be pronounced leader of the Conservative Party. Then on Tuesday she will fly to Balmoral, where she will be invited to become the 56th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the 15th of Her Majesty’s remarkable reign.
For all its faults, the Conservative Party has not yet joined the Republican Party in sacrificing its dignity – and very possibly its electability – on the altar of personality. Partygate happened on Boris’s watch.
Pinchergate happened on his watch. The cost-of-living crisis happened on his watch. The waiting list and ambulance crisis has happened on his watch. The Channel migrant crisis exploded on his watch.
The police began dancing to the macarena on his watch. The farcical greenwashing of COP26 happened on his watch. Tax hikes on a scale not seen the 1940s happened on his watch.
The Chesham and Tiverton by-election catastrophes happened on his watch. Boris’s allies may wish to believe that he was the victim of a great betrayal. But in the end, the person who betrayed Boris was Boris.
Another fashionable argument is that the length of the leadership contest has seen a self-indulgent and callous government abandoning a desperate nation to its fate.
But again, it ignores reality. The idea Britain would be in better shape to confront the triple threats of war in the Ukraine, the Covid legacy and the inflation crisis had Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak – or potentially even Penny Mordaunt or Kemi Badenoch – been bundled into Downing Street after a cursory once-over from Tory MPs and members, is a fantasy.
Though not quite as fantastical as the idea that what was required during this moment of unprecedented national jeopardy was an eight-week interregnum under the benign dictatorship of acting PM Dominic Raab.
In the United States, a new President is always elected on the first Tuesday in November, and doesn’t take office until noon on January 20.
The Republic still stands. In fact, it was Boris and his cheerleaders who first began peddling the line, ‘You can’t create a leadership vacuum in wartime’.
Now it’s been appropriated by his most ardent critics. Similar inconsistency can be found among those who claim the leadership election represents an intolerable distraction at a time of such monumental economic and social peril.
Then in the next breath cry: ‘What we need is a General Election!’ And those critics overlook something else. Yes, the 2022 Tory leadership election has been interminable. Yes, it has been divisive. But it has also done its job.
The early favourite, Rishi Sunak ran a campaign of staggering political ineptitude. Not to mention dishonesty and petulance. But it also gave his opponent time to find herself.
For one thing, it has found Rishi Sunak out. And he deserved to be found out. The early favourite, he ran a campaign of staggering political ineptitude.
Not to mention dishonesty and petulance. It began with him pledging: ‘I will not engage in the negativity that you may have seen and read about in the media. If others wish to do that, then let them. That’s not who we are. We can be better.’
It ended with his campaign issuing a press release accusing Liz Truss of being ‘divorced from reality’. But if the contest found out the former Chancellor, it also gave his opponent time to find herself. In the early debates, Truss was hesitant and wooden.
By the end she was more confident and authentic. And that was gradually reflected in the polls. It also meant her policy offer was stress-tested. Which was important, because on more than one occasion it was found wanting. The blunder over regional pay.
The seeming reluctance to consider additional direct help over soaring energy bills. An over-emphasis on classical market solutions to the wider cost-of-living crisis. But she has had the time to learn from those missteps.
As one Truss aide told me: ‘She gets it. She knows she’s going to have to hammer energy companies. She’s not ideological about any of this.’
In 2019, the Conservative leadership election was over before it began, with Boris easily brushing aside all-comers.
In 2016, there was no election at all, Theresa May ascending to the premiership when Andrea Leadsom withdrew.
In contrast, Liz Truss has had to fight for her victory. There were moments during the early rounds when it looked like she might not make the final run-off.
Sunak’s kamikaze campaigning could have unsettled a more untested candidate. As might the increasingly vicious – and overtly sexist – smears and slurs hurled at her by the liberal Left.
Truss has come through – if not unscathed, then battle-hardened. Which is just as well.
In 2016, there was no election at all, Theresa May ascending to the premiership when Andrea Leadsom withdrew. In contrast, Liz Truss has had to fight for her victory.
On Wednesday she faces her first big political test, as she squares off opposite Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Labour MPs are in upbeat mood, buoyed by more positive poll numbers. But again, Truss’s team have been using their time wisely.
‘We’ve been doing a lot of prep on our PMQs strategy,’ one told me. ‘We’re ready for Keir.’
A good performance on Wednesday would help calm fractious Tory nerves. But, frankly, Labour’s leader is the least of her worries. An emergency budget. Countering the spiralling wave of industrial unrest. Cementing the alliance against Putin.
No incoming Prime Minister since the Second World War has faced such a daunting in-tray.
Liz Truss’s impatience to swap Chevening for Downing Street is understandable.
But in the end, this eight-week contest has served her – and the nation – well.
Once the fateful decision to oust Boris had been made, the imperative wasn’t to find a swift replacement.
It was to find the best replacement. Ignore the critics and naysayers. The Conservative Party has done just that.