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For me, the Conservative Party leadership contest is over.

I could be wrong, but it looks as if Liz Truss will be measuring curtains for No. 10 in a few weeks’ time.

Barring anything unforeseen, this will be my last report on the contest until early September.

Telegraph hustings at Cheltenham

On Thursday, August 11, The Telegraph presented a Conservative Party hustings at the Cheltenham racecourse in Gloucestershire.

The paper’s Camilla Tominey moderated the event.

She asked Liz Truss about her barbed exchange with TalkTV’s Tom Newton Dunn earlier last week:

Camilla: Are you happy with the press this week? Because you’ve had a bit of a go at us.

Liz: Well, I had a go at Tom Newton Dunn, but you’re asking much sounder questions Camilla.

Camilla: Thank you!

Guido has the video, in which Liz tells Camilla that she would like more questions about trade deals:

Here is the video of the hustings in full:

Viewers were given the opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate online in a poll for the paper. It appeared that people could vote more than once:

Even before the hustings began, Rishi was in the lead. Hmm:

The Telegraph featured an article highlighting readers’ opinions.

It is a shame that so many Britons have forgotten the comparative ‘more’. There were only two candidates, therefore, saying ‘most’ — implying three or more — was clearly wrong.

One of Rishi’s supporters thought he could beat Labour:

Having just watched both candidates, it’s not too difficult to accept that Rishi Sunak was the most inspiring. Indeed, in contrast to his wooden adversary, he gave a rousing speech. I wonder how many members watched and are open-minded enough to ditch Liz Truss? She would lose to Labour in two years’ time. Sunak at least gives us a chance.

Another said Liz was ‘weak’:

Liz Truss’s yes and no round showed her to be very weak: no dramatic reform of the BBC, no cap on immigration, keeping net zero, no dramatic reduction to the size of government. She is no Tory candidate.

Another branded her ‘useless’:

Liz Truss cannot answer a question properly. She is useless. At least Rishi Sunak is willing to tell some home truths even if people don’t want to hear it.

However, Liz’s supporters thought that she offered a fresh approach.

One said (emphases mine):

I’m beginning to like Liz Truss more and more. She’s a radical democrat determined to confront the anti-democratic ‘establishment’. If she wins, hers will be a revolution supported by the democratic majority in the UK.

Another said she has foresight:

Whoever wins the leadership contest, one thing is for certain – Rishi Sunak will lose the next general election. Liz Truss at least has a better chance of seeing off Labour and the Lib Dems. She has more foresight than Rishi Sunak, where he is telling the Tory members more of the same is right, where at least Liz Truss is offering a choice of something different. Time will tell if she’s right.

Another said that Rishi looked too managerial:

Watching this debate reminded me of a typical departmental meeting. Rishi Sunak is the over-keen middle manager trying to impress the boss and climb the greasy pole. Liz Truss is the experienced old hand who just gets on with the job.

Yes, interesting comment, that. Who is Rishi’s boss? His Infosys father-in-law?

Telegraph columnists weighed in with their verdicts.

Seasoned veteran Janet Daley noted that, while the candidates differed on strategy, they are both committed to Conservative values:

The substantive disagreement came through as clearly as I have ever heard it. Rishi believes that inflation is the greatest danger and that our primary obligation is to pay down the national debt to create a sound economy. 

Liz insists that the more serious threat is impending recession which would be made more likely by increasing taxes which would depress investment and entrepreneurialism. That’s it. This was an argument about strategy rather than outcome.

Apart from that, their philosophies and values were remarkably similar. They are both sincere in their commitment to post-Thatcher Conservative values which they defined in almost identical ways: pride in the country and its values, the importance of education in providing opportunity and equality and, above all, creating the possibility for aspiration and social mobility. For all the supposed acrimony in this contest, they could certainly serve in each other’s Cabinets.

She said that the candidates’ ease of presentation depended on the format:

The opening statement went to Rishi who was rather manically charismatic but charming, where Liz looked uncomfortable and stiff.

But in the conversational mode with Camilla Tominey, Liz came through as relatable and convincingly thoughtful. She looked much happier talking to a person than to a large audience. Rishi seemed perfectly at home with a crowd, turning round repeatedly to make sure to address the whole room. It made him appear confident – perhaps too much so.

There was something of the conceited sixth former about him – as there has been all along.

Tim Stanley thought that Camilla Tominey came out on top.

He picked up on Liz’s line about wheat fields being turned into solar farms:

Fields that should be stuffed with wheat, she said, are now planted with solar panels – and “it’s one of the most depressing sights in Britain”.

Oh, I can think of far worse. Such as an email from British Gas.

He prefers Rishi’s stage presence but says that Liz’s policies are more interesting:

The curious thing is that Rishi still looks like the frontrunner. He’s got the best ad, energy and endorsers: Hague, Lilley, Lawson and the ghost of Lord Salisbury. But it’s Liz who with every appearance gets more interesting. No election before 2024, she said; no windfall taxes because profit is a good thing.

In the end:

For my money, the winner of this one was The Telegraph, because it had the best presenter thus far. Camilla for PM.

Ross Clark thought that Rishi was losing ground:

He couldn’t understand, he told us, why he was perceived not to be ‘Brexity’ enough. Both claims fell flat. No-one clapped or cheered when he tried to establish his Brexit credentials.

Moreover, Sunak’s strongest suit – his warmth as a public speaker – no longer seemed quite the asset it was in earlier debates. He tried to up the tempo – with the result that he began to lose gravitas

Clark said that Liz is developing policies as she gradually moves through the hustings:

For her part, Truss concentrated on trying to resolve the policy weaknesses which led, for example, to last week’s embarrassment over regional pay boards. It was a strategy that seemed to pay off in Cheltenham. She came across as someone who is thinking carefully on policy – even though she is still lacking many answers.

Her biggest weakness was failing to answer what immediate steps she would take to help people with energy bills over the next few months; she sketched over the issue and rushed ahead onto longer-term policies such as fracking – which might be right but are not going to help people over the next few months.

In the one-to-one section of the hustings it became clear that Rishi’s team is better at filling to front rows of these events with his own cheering supporters. But you sense that the rest of the audience are more interested in what Truss has to say, because she remains by far the most likely victor.

Patrick O’Flynn said that Liz’s ideas for defeating the Liberal Democrats, who have been winning Conservative by-elections, topped Rishi’s style over substance:

Her pledge about bringing back a special unit in CCHQ to mastermind a fightback against the Yellow Peril – the Lib Dems, with whom she enjoyed a youthful infatuation – may not have raised the roof but certainly had the wise owls in the crowd nodding sagely. Her claim that she could best beat the Liberals because she knew all about their old tricks was stretching things a bit, but then so was Sunak’s attempt to be passionate about having funded “the dualling of the A417”.

If this were a knife-edge contest then Sunak’s slick display and his whooping fans could have conjured the illusion of him being the candidate with most momentum. And fair play to him for insisting again that he will not quit the contest prematurely. But he is so far behind on points that he would have needed a knockout blow to revive his chances and he came nowhere near that.

The paper also reported that, although things looked normal on stage, once the cameras were off:

things were frostier, with the candidates clearly avoiding crossing one another’s path as they walked off stage towards their dressing rooms.

The Guardian‘s political editor, Toby Helm, was also in Cheltenham to assess the mood before and after the hustings:

As Conservative party members filed into the latest leadership hustings at a baking hot Cheltenham racecourse, very few among this important electorate seemed enthused by the two-way race.

Neither of the runners – foreign secretary Liz Truss nor ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak – excited much Tory passion, nor seemed the subject of heavy betting. Some of those who attended, and who will decide the identity of the new prime minister, suggested they had come along out of duty, to choose the least worst option on offer

Lucy Coxall, a project manager for a London design company, who had travelled from Wiltshire, said she was genuinely undecided and irritated at media reports that Truss had it in the bag already. “It is ridiculous to suggest it is already over. I really want to hear what the candidates have to say,” she said.

Caroline Baldwin, who runs a property business with her husband, said she was leaning to Truss but not firmly, while Jude Walker, who used to vote Labour, but had switched to the Tories a few years ago because she liked Boris Johnson, seemed to wish the dethroned PM could carry on, as she arrived to assess the qualities of his potential successors.

Ned Bowron, who runs an outside events business and is deputy chair of membership and fundraising for Stroud Conservatives, said he too was leaning in the Truss direction but was open to persuasion by Sunak, while Bob Griffin, who runs an export business, preferred Truss on the evidence thus far.

Two hours of speeches and interrogation later, many views had changed. Some undecideds had made up their minds, some decideds had switched allegiances, while others had just hardened their opinions in the direction they were already leaning. Strikingly, the movement was by no means all – or even predominantly – towards the hot favourite Truss.

The previously agnostic Coxall had decided to plump decisively for Sunak on the basis of what she had seen and heard. “I was much more convinced by Rishi and thought he had an answer for everything on the economy,” she said afterwards. “He presented himself with energy. He sounded so much more progressive and had so much more of a vision for the future. Everything from Liz was short-term thinking.” If Truss were to become prime minister, Coxall believes the Tories will have less chance of victory at the next general election.

Griffin, on the other hand, had become more convinced that Truss was the right choice after the meeting: “What she was trying to sell me was a genuine ‘to do list’ while what he was selling was ‘Rishi Sunak for prime minister’.”

Both Bowron and Baldwin, however, had gone from preferring Truss to thinking better of Sunak than they had before. “Liz’s financial plans seemed, well, rather unbudgeted and rather worrying,” said Bowron. “I am pretty sure I will vote for Rishi now. I think he is a safer pair of hands. Liz doesn’t seem to understand that those who most need help don’t pay tax and yet she is going on about tax cuts.” Baldwin was also concerned that Truss’s tax plans would not help the most needy. “I was leaning to her but now I am not sure,” she said.

Boris

Boris returned from his holiday early last week and is now house-hunting.

On Monday, August 15, the Mail reported that he is looking for an abode in Dulwich Village, south London:

Boris Johnson appears to be taking notes from a former Prime Minister, as he looks to buy a house in the same south London suburb Margaret Thatcher moved to after she left No 10 Downing Street.

The outgoing Prime Minister, 58, will be leaving his role next month and has started house-hunting for a new marital home in Dulwich Village with wife Carrie, 34, and the couple’s two children.

Before moving into Number 10 in 2019, Mr and Mrs Johnson bought a property overlooking Brunswick Park in Camberwell, south London.

That townhouse is now listed for sale for £1.6million, £400,000 more than they paid for it.

Not short of cash, the couple’s reported budget of £3million should be more than sufficient, as properties in the leafy village have sold £1,820,887 on average in the past year, according to Zoopla.

Margaret Thatcher, however, did not stay in Dulwich Village for long:

Margaret Thatcher moved to Dulwich Village after being ousted in 1990, buying a house with her husband Dennis for £400,000.

However the Iron Lady lasted just a year in the village before moving back to a more central location in London.

Discussions on GB News at the weekend showed that Boris was still popular with the public, especially among newly-minted Red Wall Conservatives.

They liked the spark and verve he brought to the 2019 general election. They appreciated the attention he gave them.

They said that neither Truss nor Sunak seemed to be in touch with ordinary people.

The irony is that Boris isn’t anymore in touch with them than either of the two leadership candidates. He just knows how to speak to people — and fire up their imaginations. He’s the best campaigner the Conservative Party will have for decades.

There hasn’t been any more mention of whether a special ballot will go out to Conservative members with his name on it. The petition, with nearly 20,000 signatories, was a great idea but it didn’t go anywhere at CCHQ, which would have had to change the rules.

On Tuesday, August 9, one of the petition’s campaigners, David Bannerman, a former Conservative MEP, told Nigel Farage that he was supporting Liz Truss:

Farage, as one would expect, presented the Conservatives as losers, saying that the public would never forgive them for the cost of living crisis.

Boris, in his detractors’ minds, is somehow supposed to take care of the crisis when everyone who is anyone is on holiday at the moment.

On Monday, August 8, Scotland’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford (SNP), demanded that Boris ‘come out of hiding’ and recall Parliament:

Interestingly, Ian Blackford was on holiday in the western United States at the time, enjoying sights such as the Grand Canyon. Guido Fawkes has his full itinerary. Blackford did not fly home until August 6, at the earliest.

Also interesting is that, by the time Blackford issued his demand, Boris had already returned to London:

Here’s Tony Blair’s spinmeister Alastair Campbell also baying for Boris and saying that former Labour PM Gordon Brown should be in charge:

Voters will not care what Campbell or Blackford think. Gordon Brown piped up, too, but a lot of conservatives and Conservatives still back the former Party leader.

On Sunday, August 14, The Guardian reported:

This weekend, with less than three weeks to go before voting ends, Truss is way ahead of Sunak, according to opinion polls of the Tory membership.

Today’s survey of 570 Conservative members, by Opinium, for the Observer, gives Truss a 22-point lead. She is on 61% to Sunak’s 39% ….

Where this latest poll is perhaps most intriguing is in the lack of enthusiasm it shows for either Truss or Sunak among those who must choose the next leader of the party and country after September 5. This is evident when those with a vote in the contest are offered the choice of either Truss or Sunak, against the theoretical option of Johnson remaining leader and prime minister. Asked who they would prefer in No 10 – Johnson or Truss – 63% of Conservative members said they would prefer to keep Johnson while only 22% would rather have Truss. When the offer is Johnson staying on, versus Sunak taking over, 68% say Johnson and just 19% Sunak. Chris Curtis of Opinium says sellers’ remorse is setting in as far as Johnson is concerned. “It could be down to people forgetting how bad things got, or a lack of appetite for the replacements,” he said.

But it is hardly encouraging for the eventual winner to know that three times as many of their party’s own voters would now prefer to have the previous leader than either of them to fight for a fifth consecutive Tory win at the next general election. Inside the hustings at Cheltenham, there were cheers for Truss and Sunak in equal measure. But there was deep uncertainty – and plenty who were unimpressed.

On Saturday, August 13, Jacob Rees-Mogg, former Leader of the house and current minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, told MPs Esther McVey and Philip Davies, her husband, that Boris would not be returning to Downing Street.

The Telegraph reported that Rees-Mogg, a Boris loyalist, said:

life just isn’t like that.

Despite Boris’s hints at a return during his final PMOs …

… Rees-Mogg told the two MPs:

that it was not “realistic” to think that Mr Johnson could make a return to Downing Street

“Nobody’s come back having lost the leadership of the party since Gladstone,” Mr Rees-Mogg replied. “And I just don’t think in modern politics, the chance of coming back is realistic.

“Lots of people think they’re going to be called back by a grateful nation which is why Harold MacMillan waited 20 years before accepting his peerage… Life just isn’t like that.”

It’s time to let Boris get on with the rest of his life after September 5.

We won’t have seen the last of him, but it will be in a different guise.

This week, I hope to write about the events that led to Boris’s downfall.

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