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Paul Vallely: Sunak and Truss race to the Right

29 July 2022

But party members do not represent ordinary Brits, says Paul Vallely


Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss take part in a debate broadcast on the BBC, on Monday evening

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss take part in a debate broadcast on the BBC, on Monday evening

THE Conservative leadership contest is moving the party to the Right. In a bid to appeal to the Tory party members who will elect our next Prime Minister, the candidates both risk taking their party away from the ground on which British general elections are won.

Early on, it felt as though clear blue water was opening between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. The former Chancellor outlined old-style Thatcherite housekeeping economics, in which he promised not to spend more than the country could afford. Ms Truss, by contrast, for all that her couture echoed that of the Iron Lady, is promising to borrow to finance tax cuts.

But now, the two rivals are seeking to outdo one another in appealing to the Right. Ms Truss wants to add other far-way places to Rwanda as warehouses of unwanted asylum-seekers; Mr Sunak wants to place them in prison hulks, or cruise ships at any rate. Both candidates have sought to outflank one another in hawkishness over China.

Yet the electorate they woo is far from representative of most British voters. The 170,000 members of the Conservative Party who will choose our new PM constitute less than half of one per cent of the 47 million voters on the electoral register. Moreover, Tory members are old, posh, rich, white, male, southern, and in favour of a far harder Brexit than even general Leave voters, according to research by Queen Mary University of London. About 80 per cent are ABC1s — the top socio-economic ranking — compared with 53 per cent of the population.

Polls show that they are well to the right of the electorate when it comes to the economy, immigration, law and order, gender, race, and trans equality. Only 14 per cent of them think that the Government should redistribute income from the affluent to the poor. Fewer than one third are in favour of “levelling up” to tackle regional inequalities. And they care a lot less about climate change. More than half support reintroducing the death penalty, 59 per cent oppose gay marriage, and 42 per cent want films and magazines censored to uphold moral standards.

Such views led one top Tory to dismiss local members as “mad, swivel-eyed loons” when David Cameron was in Downing Street.

Extending leadership votes to party members — in both Conservative and Labour parties — was supposed to make politics more democratic. The result was the election of Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson.

That’s democracy, you may riposte. Well, it may be when it comes to electing a party leader. But, when the person elected automatically becomes Prime Minister, then enfranchising a self-selecting group of activists can increase rather than reduce the democratic deficit. It would actually be more democratic to leave the choice of a new PM to MPs, who have at least been elected by the whole country.

That academic research showed something else. Most Tory members live in traditional Conservative safe seats; there are far fewer members in the former Labour “red wall” seats which fell to the Tories for the first time at the last General Election. The views and values of Tory voters in those vulnerable seats are significantly different. Pandering to the Right may get Ms Truss or Mr Sunak into Downing Street. But it may not keep them there for long.

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