Rishi Sunak’s supporters are understandably glum, but one thing alone means they have not totally given up hope of defeating Liz Truss. “We’re crossing our fingers for a gamechanging gaffe,” says one Conservative MP who has ended up supporting Sunak after initially backing another candidate.
John Curtice, the polling expert from Strathclyde University, this week put Sunak’s chances of victory at just 5%, saying Truss was almost sure to win unless she “fouls up in some spectacular fashion” in the final stages of the Tory leadership contest.
Many Conservative members have already cast their votes, which cannot be changed before the 5pm deadline on 2 September. However, that does not stop Truss’s diehard Tory opponents from engaging in some wishful thinking about an error so huge – past or present – that she has to withdraw.
“My hunch is she will be a terrible prime minister,” one Conservative MP and former cabinet minister groans.
“You’ve got this bidding process in terms of tax and spend – the absolutely worst way to make decisions. So that’s problematic for a start.
“And she’s also surrounded by these different groups – the ERG fanatics, not just Brexiteers but those who have a very strange view of the world, and the other one is the careerists. I laughed out loud at all the cabinet ministers declaring for her.”
Conservative members – among whom she enjoys about a 30-point lead over Sunak – do not seem to have been put off by Truss’s missteps in what has been far from a smooth campaign.
She has U-turned over whether to cut civil service pay in the regions, ditching the new policy less than 24 hours after it had been trumpeted in a press release, and changed her tune on whether to give “handouts” to those struggling with high energy bills.
Meanwhile, her campaign’s pledge to deal with “woke culture” that “strays into antisemitism” in the civil service caused outcry in Whitehall and offended some Jews with her definition of Jewishness as setting up businesses and supporting the family unit.
Some of her previous comments and policy ideas have also emerged during the campaign, raising questions about what she really believes. Leaked audio obtained by the Guardian from Truss’s time as a Treasury minister in 2019 showed she had launched a broadside against British workers, saying they needed “more graft” and suggesting they lacked the “skill and application” of foreign rivals.
Further back, she co-authored a paper for the Reform thinktank in 2009 that suggested charging for access to GPs and rethinking the future of the Trident nuclear deterrent.
Long ago, Truss wanted to abolish the monarchy, of which she is now a staunch defender, and she has converted from a Brexit opponent to a firm backer who attracts the support of the most fervent Eurosceptics.
Then in March she had to withdraw her support for the idea of British nationals going to join the fight against Vladimir Putin’s forces in Ukraine after being contradicted by colleagues.
Conservative members do not appear to mind such fluidity, though whether the public learn to love a gaffe-prone prime minister is another matter. Boris Johnson, with an unrivalled propensity to slip up, always managed to shrug off his missteps – until the Partygate and Tory sexual misconduct scandals overwhelmed him.
The question is whether Truss, with less charm and campaigning experience, will be the election winner Tory members hope for if she continues in the current vein.
In an article in the Critic magazine, one of her former staffers, Henry Oliver, wrote last month that her gaffes did not preclude her from being a “splendid politician” and serious thinker.
“A lot of what irritates the Guardian about Liz is veneer. Her bark is worse than her bite. Her gaffes are a distraction from her talent,” he wrote in July.
A number of MPs supporting Truss acknowledged some worries about the frequency of her slips during the campaign, but for at least one, her “energy and verve” more than made up for the rockiness of the past few weeks.
“I do have some concerns but my members seem pretty keen despite everything that’s happened,” the veteran Tory backbencher said.