Written by IDU Honorary Chairman Lord Michael Ashcroft KCMG PC.
In some ways it seems hardly believable that Britain’s Conservatives should be choosing a new leader less than three years after Boris Johnson led the party to its biggest election victory since 1987. To some who have followed the mishaps of recent months – including revelations about lockdown rule-breaking and an accumulation of scandals that ultimately combined to demolish trust in his leadership – the surprise is that Johnson lasted as long as he did. Either way, the UK will have a new Prime Minister on 5 September.
For Conservative MPs, the most popular choice is Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who won the most votes of the eight candidates who stood in the parliamentary stage of the leadership election. But party members, who will make the final decision in a nationwide ballot, may have other ideas: polling suggests he lags behind Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, the other remaining contender.
Two years ago Sunak was the most popular politician in the country, praised for his swift action to keep jobs and businesses going during the pandemic, as well as his calm authority and empathetic manner. Rising taxes have led some to reassess his record at the Treasury, while stories about his family’s wealth have led many to wonder how far he understands ordinary people’s lives at a time when living costs are rising sharply. And although most Conservatives thought Johnson’s departure was overdue, the fact that Sunak helped bring it about by resigning from the cabinet brings him very little credit: rightly or wrongly, many are left with the impression that he did so to advance his own career.
Truss, meanwhile, remains in Johnson’s government to this day. Although she has been a minister for a decade – longer than Sunak has been in parliament – voters feel they know her less well than her rival. But as I found in my new research among Conservative voters around the country, many are impressed by what they see of her on the campaign trail. They saw her as direct and authentic, while some saw the polished and statesmanlike Sunak as somewhat more remote.
In policy terms, an early divide opened over the right approach to tax and debt. Many Conservative voters agreed in principle with Sunak’s argument that it was wrong to pass our bills on to the next generation, and that tax cuts would have to wait until debt and inflation had been brought under control. In practice, though, there was a widespread feeling that help was needed now, and Truss’s promise to reverse recent tax rises in the hope of stimulating the economy have found a ready audience.
Voters as a whole thought Sunak more likely than his opponent to be competent, have the right judgment in a crisis and represent the UK well internationally. Among those who voted Conservative in 2019, Truss led in nearly all areas – especially being honest with the public and caring about “people like me”.
But forced in my poll to choose between a Labour government with Keir Starmer as Prime Minister or another Conservative government, voters chose Labour by similar margins whichever candidate wins next month. Moreover, they tended to think that what happened in Britain in the next few years would be more or less the same whether Truss or Sunak is in Downing Street.
With the repercussions of covid and the Ukraine war, Britain – like many other countries in Europe and beyond – faces perhaps the most difficult economic outlook in living memory. As well as navigating these formidable trials, the victor will then have the task of winning a record-breaking fifth term after fourteen years of Conservative-led government. Let’s hope the new Prime Minister enjoys a challenge.
Lord Ashcroft is Honorary Chairman of the IDU. Full details of his polling are available at LordAshcroftPolls.com