Can Sunak catch up with Truss in race for Downing Street?

Can Sunak catch up with Truss in race for Downing Street?

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One month before the new Conservative leader and British prime minister is announced on September 5, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has a commanding lead over ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak among the Tory Party members who decide the outcome – having framed the economic policy debate to her advantage amid an acute cost of living crisis. 

The latest polls show Truss has widened her lead over Sunak: 58 percent of the approximately 180,000 Conservative Party members back her, compared to 26 percent who back Sunak and 12 percent who have not yet made up their minds, according to a survey by Tory activist website ConservativeHome published on August 4.

Sunak’s campaign has focused on his reputation for competence, after he steered the British economy through the Covid crisis as chancellor of the exchequer, splashing out more than £300 billion to keep jobs and demand afloat. But this response to a once in a century pandemic has left the UK with a record budget deficit and the highest tax burden since Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 Labour government – while more than a decade of dismal productivity growth augurs badly for Britain’s underlying economic health. 

This economic outlook makes the premiership something of a poisoned chalice – but in terms of the leadership contest, Liz Truss has so far turned the stormy situation to her advantage.  

The foreign secretary says she will cut taxes to boost Britain’s economic dynamism and ease the amplifying cost of living crisis. This classical liberalism is playing well with Tory members, who tend to be older, affluent and southern. It is a markedly different constituency from the party’s new, second electoral base – those vast numbers of northern ex-Labour voters, some of whom the Tories gradually won over the past few decades, many of whom flocked to the Conservatives in 2019 when Labour’s Red Wall came crashing down.

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FRANCE 24 spoke to Sir John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, about the race for Downing Street a month before Boris Johnson’s successor is announced.

Why does Truss have such a commanding lead over Sunak among Tory members? 

Truss has played into the party’s angst about the level of taxation and public spending it finds itself presiding over in the wake of Covid – and she has effectively used the cost of living crisis as a reason for pursuing tax cuts. It was Sunak’s misfortune to have been in his post when the music stopped. Sunak has struggled with that. 

Truss has also succeeded in creating narratives that paint her in a good light and cast doubt on Sunak, of which the clearest example is her portraying herself as an ordinary person from a not particularly well-off background while portraying Sunak as a posh boy who went to Winchester [one of the UK’s grandest private schools] and who is now, along with his wife [Akshata Murthy], worth a fortune. 

This narrative can be questioned. Having a father who was a professor of mathematics is not obviously a more deprived background than having a father who was a GP [a general practitioner doctor]. The parts of Leeds in which she grew up are relatively affluent. But it’s a clever narrative and she does come across as more ordinary, whereas Sunak’s politics can make him seem rather more distant. 

The third factor is that Sunak has suffered from the fallout from Partygate [he was fined] along with the non-dom issue [it was revealed that Murthy has non-domiciled status, meaning she did not pay tax on income earned overseas while residing in the UK].  

If this contest was happening six months ago, Sunak would have won it relatively easily. He is still suffering from a substantial decline in his popularity in the wake of those two issues. 

Sunak has been keen to portray himself to Tory members as more electable among the general public. Why has this tactic seemed to gain little traction? Is he really more electable? 

Neither of them has the advantage here. I can find polls that have slightly more people amongst the general public preferring Truss, I can find others where the balance is slightly in the opposite direction, and quite a few where it’s basically even. Polls also show them on level-pegging when people are asked who they’d prefer against [Labour leader Sir Keir] Starmer. 

But the important thing is that Tory members think Truss is more likely to win. 

Sunak does score relatively well when it comes to perceptions of competence; questions of who looks more prime ministerial. You could see that during last night’s televised debate – he clearly impressed the audience with his command of detail.  

But the trouble is that if you look at the debate on the BBC last week, he displayed strong debating ability yet to some it looked a bit aggressive. So [that performance] didn’t necessarily work – because he could be painted as a Winchester public school boy engaging in Oxford Union-style debating, as opposed to ordinary Liz who understands people’s concerns and whom you can relate to. 

So even if last night’s debate format played to Sunak’s advantage, it was probably too little, too late for him. 

What are the prospects of either of them pulling off yet another Tory general election victory before the end of 2024? 

The Tory Party is having a crisis of confidence about finding itself in a situation where it’s presiding over a very high level of public spending and taxation. It’s not entirely noticed that, along the way, it’s now at risk of presiding over the biggest drop in living standards since the Second World War. 

And it’s very, very difficult for any government to survive that electorally. The only thing that means the Tories have a chance of surviving is that people are not convinced the Labour Party has the answers either. 

Whether it’s Truss or Sunak who takes over, there is a parallel with Gordon Brown [Labour prime minister from 2007 to 2010]. You become prime minister in the second half of a parliament and no sooner are you there than an almighty economic crisis hits you. In Brown’s case, he got into Number 10 before the crisis hit [before he ended up losing the 2010 general election], whereas in this case the crisis has been very clearly signalled before the next person gets in. But in many respects, this is a very similar scenario. 

On the other hand, Starmer is just struggling to construct an alternative narrative about the direction in which he would take the country. And if he can’t do that when the government is facing an almighty economic crisis, you do wonder whether he’s ever going to do it. 



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